Every Brilliant Thing at The Kitchen Theatre
Ithaca’s little gem of a theater is home to a professional company, “The Kitchen”, that is now in its 26th season with new Producing Artistic Director, M. Bevin O’Gara, at the helm. I attended a “meet the new director” event where O’Gara explained that she leans towards the dramatic comedy genre, as it reflects real life. Every Brilliant Thing is currently playing a the The Kitchen, and fits that genre.
Every Brilliant Thing is authored by Duncan McMillan, co-written by Jonny Donahoe. The use of the word “brilliant” in the title may be misleading to American audiences. It does not mean smart or bright, but here it is the British slang for “wonderful”, or as we’d say these days, “awesome”. This gets explained in the preamble to the show by O’Gara and the sole actor, Karl Gregory.
This is basically a one-man show. I say basically because many members of the audience get to have a single speaking line, and a few actually become characters in the show, spontaneously chosen by Gregory on the fly. More on that later.
The topic is suicide as experienced by Gregory’s main character who we follow from being a boy of 7 into adulthood. The young boy’s mom makes a suicide attempt. The dad, played (well) by an audience member, isn’t much help. There is a character swap, and now the audience member is the young boy needing answers and asks only “Why?” to everything while Gregory, now the dad, attempts to answer the unanswerable. It’s a powerful scene.
The young boy (no names given), seeing that his mom is unhappy, has the idea to make a list of “brilliant” things – things to be grateful for, things that make life worth living. This is where the audience comes in. Before the show started Gregory handed out slips of paper to most of the audience consisting of just under 100 members. On it is a number and a phrase. When the number is called the person holding that slip speaks the phrase written. These are the “brilliant things” (mine was #557, tea and cookies). It’s a nice device that breaks up the potential monotony of a one-person show and truly involves the audience.
The boy grows as does the list. There are dramatic twists and more characters get involved from the in-the-oval audience. One would think this could be a recipe for disaster, but on this night all the characters spontaneously chosen from the audience were very good – almost too good with improvised dialog, getting a bit hammy at times. Either Gregory has an uncanny ability to pick out winners or one may think they were plants!
Music plays an important role. Dad is an avid jazz listener. The music is brought to life by Don Tindall’s sound design. Dad’s musical selections were indicative of his mood, so the boy always knew how receptive dad was to being bothered.
Karl Gregory is a very good choice for this role. He is a five-year Kitchen Theatre veteran with over 40 productions under his belt. He is very comfortable in this theater and it shows. His character has much interaction with the audience both before the show and during, so he needs to be an affable, sympathetic character. Gregory shone here. His acting was so natural that you felt as though you knew him. His interaction with audience members was very sensitive as well. At one point a woman sitting down and center had a coughing fit that lasted minutes. Gregory tried to gently assist her. And it all seemed to just fit into the flow.
Wendy Dann, an Ithaca stalwart and playwright, is director. For seven seasons she was Associate Artistic Director at The Kitchen’s big sibling, Ithaca’s Hangar Theater. In an interview Dann tells how directing a one-person show is very different from directing a cast. In this case it’s a collaboration, mostly giving feedback with her perceptions and making sure that the intent comes across. It worked!
There was no set – just an empty elongated oval floor surrounded by the audience on risers. The lighting was minimal, but there was a great lighting moment when all the lights came up bright and we were in a group therapy session. For some reason, it felt very real. Simple and effective! Oh – and a mirrored disco ball. Gotta have one of those.
Every Brilliant Thing is very worth seeing. It’s a unique theater experience, and that’s always a good thing. It plays from now through December 10th.
The Kitchen is located at 417 West State/ MLK, Jr. St., Ithaca. Call 607-272-0403, or web at http://www.kitchentheatre.org