Review: 5 things to know about Boise Contemporary Theater’s play that’s not a play
“Every Brilliant Thing” draws people from the audience into the show about depression and suicide. The comedy opened March 7 at BCT. Actor Christian Libonati and director Julie Ritchey talk about how the play different from traditional theater.
Think of “Every Brilliant Thing,” which opened at Boise Contemporary Theater on Saturday night, as a play that’s not a play in the traditional sense. Yes, it’s a performance by an adorable, energetic Chicago-based actor named Christian Libonati. But this isn’t a by-the-book, sit-in-the-dark theatrical experience. It’s more than that, and it’s a show you shouldn’t miss.
And, to be transparent, it’s about depression and suicide. However, it’s also one of the most uplifting and hopeful community experiences I’ve been to in a long time. Here’s why:
NO SET, NO LIGHTING
There is no set except the entire theater — from the exposed brick walls to the last seats in the intimate house. Libonati uses all that space in the reconfigured black-box theater. Its red seats — originally from the Egyptian Theatre — are arranged into a theater-in-the-round performance space.
The house lights are just on, taking down the theatrical “walls” between performer and audience — and audience and audience. I found myself watching the reactions of my fellow spectators and folding their expressions, reactions and more into my experience.
This is a choice by director Julie Ritchey and Libonati, who have been collaborating for 14 years at their Filament Theatre company in Chicago. I can imagine a production with a use of lighting that would add more theatricality, but less connection.
They promised a truly communal experience. This show delivers.
British playwright Duncan Macmillan and comedian Jonny Donahoe premiered “Every Brilliant Thing” in Scotland’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2015. It explores the world of a man facing his depression as he relives the experience of growing up with a bipolar mother, whose swings between elation and depression — and suicide attempts — marked his childhood.
To cope, he starts making a list for his mom of things that are worth living for: No. 1, ice cream; No. 2, kung fu movies; No. 3, burning things …
He wants to remind her — and us — that it’s worth staying here.
ONE ACTOR — AND THE REST OF THE CAST
Libonati is an engaging, personable actor whose greatest asset in this production is his unfiltered, unabashed sincerity. And it’s infectious. His wide-open eyes search the faces around him, making contact when allowed and drawing you into the work, if you’re willing. And most audience members were more than willing on opening night.
From an acting standpoint, this is a daunting one-person show, at 70 minutes straight through. (Because of the openness of the production style, people are allowed to get up and use the bathroom if need be, and re-enter the theater.) And Libonati keeps the pace brisk and the energy fluid.
The really cool part is that he involves several people in the room. Some play auxiliary characters — his father, his romantic partner and favorite college professor. He gives them lines and things to read, and allows for improvisation.
On opening night, Libonati unknowingly asked veteran Boise actor Stitch Marker, who happened to be in the audience, to play his professor with hilarious results. The gentleman who played the father was equally enjoyable, both in his comic and touching scenes.
With this formula, it literally will be a different show each performance.
Libonati also passed out scraps of paper with items from the list of things worth living for, and audience members read them aloud throughout the show, sending voices and energy ping-ponging about the space. Note: If you don’t want to play along, you don’t have to. But the more willing you are, the more you will enjoy the show.
THE MUSIC + ART
Macmillan uses music ranging from Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald to Curtis Mayfield and Ray Charles. The tunes punctuate milestones and underlay emotions. If you like the songs there is a Spotify.com playlist that you can download.
BCT also collaborates with visual artists for each production. For this show, it was Boise’s Troy Passey, whose medium is pen and ink, graphite, mixed media and words. That makes his minimalist and mindful works on paper the exact right aesthetic for the moment.
So, a play about depression and suicide doesn’t sound like a laugh riot — and there are serious moments to experience, and there is real information to learn. There also are moments of wackiness and sincere humor.
BCT is partnering with the St. Luke’s and Saint Alphonsus behavioral and mental health departments for the run of the show. There will be mental health professionals in the lobby to field questions, and at the postshow talks after the Friday, March 13, night show and the matinee on Saturday, March 21.
Seriously, if sitting in the dark is your preferred night at the theater, then maybe this show isn’t for you. But I would encourage you to come out of the shadows and experience the freedom and connection this show offers.
Despite the serious topic, you are more likely to leave the performance uplifted than downcast — and perhaps be inspired to make a list of your own. No. 1, a night of good theater; No. 2, dogs; No. 3, good sushi, No. 4, sunny walks in the Boise Foothills …
IF YOU GO TO ‘EVERY BRILLIANT THING’
“Every Brilliant Thing,” at Boise Contemporary Theater, 854 Fulton St. 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, March 11-21. Tickets: $28 and $38 general, $18 students at 208-331-9224, and BCTheater.org.