“Connect” is Bluebarn’s title for its new season. As the opening offering, Every Brilliant Thing certainly sweetly does that; the production affectionately holds hands with the audience in a concept devised by Duncan MacMillan and Jonny Donahoe. You would call it a play, since a sole role is the center of the friendly, often playful script. As the unnamed character, defined in the program book as “Cast,” Hughston Walkinshaw, a co-founder of Bluebarn, has the right easy and relaxed charm.
The heart of this undertaking is laudably, thoroughly community intertwined, an idea which dovetails with the avowed aim of the season’s title. Here the audience is a major participant. Even before everyone is seated, Cast is handing out scraps of paper to arrivers who will be called upon to read aloud whatever they’ve been given when cued, the things of the title. Nothing to fear; there’s no challenge. Think of it as fun.
These fragments and deliberately quick cuts from jazz recordings accent Cast’s gradually self-exploratory narrative, suggesting a kind of group therapy, although no seated witness is expected to invent an analysis. While calling forth the names of things on increasingly long lists which Cast started at age 7, he touches on such subjects as suicide, family, communication, courtship and love, with the first-named because his mother’s attempted suicide prompted that list. He speaks with an everyday vocabulary, neither profane nor profound, rarely becoming reflective or analytical. Such simplicity successfully, symbolically matches the idea that, devoid of a real name, Cast is just one of us. Walkinshaw, meanwhile, well conveys Cast’s boyish appeal, appropriate to the idea that the lists first came from the mind of a kid.
You might see kinship with Thornton Wilder’s Our Town (at UNO 9/27-10/7); the roots, meaning and method of which are not dissimilar, including having no walls between story tellers and those who look on. Yet, Wilder’s play pointedly, with elemental eloquence, cherishes universal innocence and love, urging us to grab hold of life while it lasts. Every Brilliant Thing doesn’t equal that. Cast seems like a nice guy, sure, and he certainly suggests a budding friendship, if we had the time. But his chatty narrative has scant depth.
OK, you can readily get the message that cherishing little objects of daily life and briefly meaningful moments tell us that life is worth living. Good point. But in making Cast so elemental a person, the writing needs something more. Oh, how you might yearn for the beauty of Rupert Brooke’s poem, The Great Lover in which he calls forth similarly meaningful objects, “white plates and cups, clean-gleaming…feathery, faery dust…the strong crust of friendly bread.” But note how Brooke imaginatively defined the things. Cast rarely explains the reasons behind the individual choices.
This audience participation thing has a drawback. Unlike Walkinshaw, few on hand are likely to have equal performing skill, or even volume. When I attended Thursday’s preview, some brilliant things read by attendees were not clearly understandable for many of us, observing the scattered, sometimes sparse responses of thoroughly engaged and enthusiastic people.
You could call it another suggestion of universality to omit from the program book background about the writers of this play, as if this piece just growed. Well, MacMillan’s 2015 People, Places and Things was nominated for Best New Play at the Olivier Awards and his co-adaptation of a stage version of George Orwell’s 1984 opened on Broadway in June. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duncan_Macmillan_(playwright).
Jonny Donahoe is a British comedian and performer, known for a comedy band, Jonny and the Baptists (a collaboration with Paddy Gervers) on BBC Radio 4. He has also been a regular performer as Cast. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jonny_Donahoe
The preview audience, cheering in a standing o, really felt connected. That goal succeeded admirably.
Every Brilliant Thing plays through Oct 15, at Bluebarn Theatre, 1106 South 10th St. Thurs.-Sat.: 7:30 p.m., Sun.: 6 p.m. Tickets: $25-$30. bluebarn.org