“If you have no tragedy, you have no comedy. Crying and laughing are the same emotion. If you laugh too hard, you cry. And vice versa.” — Sid Caesar
“If you live a long life and get to the end of it without ever once having felt crushingly depressed,” the narrator at the center of “Every Brilliant Thing” tells us, “then you probably haven’t been paying attention.”
How true. And the entertaining and evocative interactive theater experience developed by English writer Duncan Macmillan (from his short story “Sleeve Notes”) and Irish writer/actor/comedian Jonny Donahoe found a lovely localized home (including such references as a feline named “Catsy Cline”) Nov. 7-10 at Tennessee Performing Arts Center’s Johnson Theater in a Nashville Repertory Theatre production that was directed by Lauren Shouse and featured Mark Cabus.
Depression and its attendant tragedies are certainly part of the personal tale that unfolds in “Every Brilliant Thing,” but so are hope and its attendant triumphs. Cabus played a man who as a seven-year-old boy began a list he hoped would help his mother; in the end it may have encouraged him much more.
It wasn’t some linear narrative told from a confined proscenium arch under observation from a reactive crowd, though; the Johnson’s black box was a completely proactive playing space of actor and audience, starting when Cabus mingled pre-show to pass out list items for people to call out when he said the corresponding number. (At the Nov. 9 evening performance, I got “25. Wearing a cape.”) Audience members also played some of the roles in the piece, including the father of the narrator.
This show has been widely embraced since it first hit the 2013 Ludlow Fringe Festival; an HBO broadcast of its 2014 Off-Broadway outing went over well, too. It’s been produced by many theatrical troupes, including a critically-lauded presentation by Nashville’s Tennessee Women’s Theatre Project in March.
So what made this Nashville Rep weekend so special? Cabus has graced many stages, offering his wide range to classical and contemporary comedies, dramas and musicals in acting ensembles and by himself for five decades; Shouse’s long-praised directorial gifts have continued to grow during time here and in Chicago. Watching their efforts on this shimmering show was the theatrical equivalent of hearing veteran virtuosos reveal beautiful new note shapes on Stradivarius strings.
Just as the script for “Every Brilliant Thing” built the story Cabus built his character’s emotional life; that life pulsated like the jazz music that accompanied parts of the action. And when his character’s crescendo occurred it was a natural as, well, B over C on the scale. Energy required to focus shifts in a character’s mood and behavior was there in perfect measure; the melodies and harmonies of Cabus and his character merged into a song of sweetness, silliness, seriousness and sorrow that left me euphoric when it ended.
Shouse is like a conductor that never wastes motion with her baton; her command of time and control of a theatrical piece’s ebbs and flows never come with unnecessary flourishes. It was true in the pacing of this piece and in the directorial decisions that made each movement distinct while never losing sight of the overall objective she cited in her note for the play’s program: to lift each other up through story.
In addition to the collaboration between director, actor and audience, there were the brilliant touches added by Nashville Rep’s wonderful artisans. These included scenic designer Gary C. Hoff, adding a comfy-chair ambiance among other grace notes; sound designer Kaitlin Barnett, who insured that the music of Ray Charles, Billie Holiday and others merged so harmoniously with non-amplified sound in the show; and lighting designer Darren Levin and assistant lighting designer Erin Featherston, whose illumination shifts were as natural as the shifting light of day. Rounding out the stellar crew were assistant director Erica Jo Lloyd, Production Director Christopher L. Jones, costume designer Emily Peck, stage manager Zachariah Heil and assistant stage manager Maggie Jackson.
In dialogue and situation the pain and humor of life soared in Nashville Rep’s rendition of “Every Brilliant Thing.” Repeat performances of this beautiful composition — and its engaging dance with the audience — would be music to the soul.
Nashville Repertory Theatre’s next 2019-20 season show is “Patrick Barlow’s A Christmas Carol” which runs Nov. 30-Dec. 22 at TPAC’s Johnson Theater. For more information and tickets click here.