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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
Every Brilliant Thing

It's important to talk about things.
Brilliant Thing
Joel Ripkin
A transformative and quirky little play is absorbing audiences at Chester Theatre Company, Chester, MA. Every Brilliant Thing defies theatre tradition for success as it incorporates such taboos as audience participation, a one-man show and full house lights for the entire production.

Should I mention it's about suicide?

However, all of these elements combine to create a humorously poignant narrative which addresses universal themes and challenges our preconceptions of what constitutes good story-telling.

The young man, Joel Ripka, greets audience members as they enter and is so disarmingly charming that almost everyone agrees to do what he asks — which is to read from a numbered card when they are cued. Others are quietly vetted beforehand to work with the performer when the time arrives. No one is coerced or surprised and the audience gleefully works together to help Ripka tell the story.

Obviously, every performance will be different as each show depends on the individual audience members. But it's the talent and focus of the young performer that keeps the play anchored and fresh.

No nodding off here. We can all see one another. Friends and community are compelled to follow the sweet and sometimes goofy protagonist as he opens his heart to us. His relentless energy and good humor belies the seriousness of his life story.

At age seven his mother began a tenacious relationship with depression and suicide. In order to forestall her loss he created a list for her to celebrate commonplace daily miracles. These are the numbered cards the audience reads aloud. Ice cream heads the list joined by the color yellow, cycling downhill, even numbered Star Trek movies, water fights and don't forget chocolate.
Gradually the list grows as we watch through the innocence of a child's eyes what he believes is worth living for and what he hopes will inspire his mom to choose life. He leaves little post-its and notes everywhere he can think to jolt her out of her melancholia.

Joel Ripka's intuitive performance is seamless and mesmerizing. He is so convincing that it is impossible to separate the real actor from the character he is playing. He makes this his story and the audience members are his memories.

This is not a dreary autobiographical monologue but a well-honed theatrical impersonation abetted by an audience who conspire with this willing suspension of disbelief. We are all in it together. The amiable audience members called upon to participate step up to the plate proving that there is more than a little thespian talent in all of us.

Ripka's casting eye prior to the show seems impeccable and his fellow "actors" respond with sincere and creditable performances playing such roles as a veterinarian, school psychologist, his dad, a teacher, a love interest; they become crucial to the story-telling and are so believable.
Ripka's engaging and intelligent portrayal is guided by the astute direction of Daniel Elihu Kramer. On his mission to eventually list a million "Brilliant Things" Ripka seems to skate effortlessly about on a reconfigured four-sided stage: he enfolds the audience into this touching, and, yes, very funny struggle to stay sane, stay alive and embrace the sacred chaos of life.

Sound Design by Tom Shread develops first the father's and then the character's love of music, especially of vinyl albums and record sleeves. The sound fleshes out the family's relationships to one another through the nuances of melody, lyrics and arrangements. They provide a source of comfort and escape to a kid caught up in family tragedy.

Based on a short story unsurprisingly called "Sleeve Notes" by Duncan MacMillan and expanded by him and actor Johnny Donahoe into this unique and intimate theatrical experience, it first garnered attention at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival before moving to the Barrow Street Theatre Off-Broadway in 2014 ( Curtainup's Review that featured co-creator Joe Donahoe). This is Every Brilliant Thing's New England Premiere.

Though there was an HBO film made, see the show! The experience of watching Ripka cast his artistic spell over a rapt audience cannot be duplicated on a flat screen. This is a truly one of a kind performance that resonates long after we leave this tribute to survival.

One more thing - Really Good Black Licorice!

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Every Brilliant Thing
By Duncan Macmillan with Jonny Donahoe
Directed by Daniel Elihu Kramer
Cast: Joel Ripka
Scene design: Travis George
Costume design: Charles Schoonmaker
Lighting design: Lara Dubin
Sound design: Tom Shread
Stage Manager: Adele Nadine Traub
Running Time: 70 minutes, no intermission
Chester Theatre Company, Chester, MA
From 7/12/17; closing 8/13/17
Reviewed by Gloria Miller at August 4, 2017 performance

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