Review: Cygnet’s ‘Brilliant Things’ brings humor, poignance to painful subject


The 75-minute play “Every Brilliant Thing” may be billed as a one-man show, but in the interactive comedy-drama that opened Saturday at Cygnet Theatre, every person in the theater is the star of the show.

The London-born 2015 play takes one man’s story about his creative tool for fighting suicidal thoughts and turns it into a warm and moving self-exploration where audience members are encouraged to get involved and leave their own mark on the theater as they leave.

The play — co-written by Duncan Macmillan and Jonny Donahoe, the actor who helped develop the script and starred in the U.K. and off Broadway productions — is a fictional autobigraphy that begins on Nov. 9, 1992, when the character is 7 years old.

That’s the day the boy’s father tells him that his chronically depressed mother has been hospitalized after a suicide attempt. It won’t be the last.

To cope, the young Narrator begins compiling a list of all the brilliant things that he loves (in England, the word “brilliant” means good, not smart, as it does in the U.S.) to combat what he calls the “hard-wired depression” that fuels his own suicidal thoughts. They include roller coasters, bubble wrap, palindromes, skinny-dipping, piglets and Christoper Walken’s hair.

Mental illness is not an amusing topic, but thanks to the spontaneous, audience-interactive nature of the play, lively and nuanced direction by Rob Lutfy and a tour de force performance by its star, Ro Boddie, the play is both uplifting and mesmerizing.

Boddie — who the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle named its 2016 male Actor of the Year — can act, sing, dance and improvise. He can make you believe, hold your attention and has charisma to spare.

The script invites its performer to make the story their own, so it’s not just the Narrator we’re watching tell his story. It’s Boddie, talking about his own childhood in North Carolina, his boyhood dog “Chubby,” his family’s Baptist church and the soul music he loves most.

With his design team of Caroline Andrew (lighting), Abigail Caywood (scenery, costumes and props) and Steven Leffue (sound), Lutfy has stripped away the artifice of theater for the production, which is presented with no set other than a record player onstage and a couple dozen lamps, lanterns and light fixtures sprinkled throughout the auditorium. They’re illuminated the whole evening so actor and audience are one.

A handful of audience members are invited to sit onstage behind Boddie to create a community effect. And before each show, he enlists them and dozens of other attendees to recite during the show some of his favorite “brilliant things,” a list that grows from 1 (“ice cream”) to 999 (“sunlight”) to 826,978 (Beyonce’s ancestral connection to Gustav Mahler) and well beyond.

With so much audience involvement, every performance is a tightrope walk. On opening night, some volunteers forgot their cues or shouted out their line too early, which kept the evening light and surprising. It can be a mess but it can also be magical, as it was Saturday when audience members picked to play the Narrator’s questioning childhood self and the Narrator’s wife were surprisingly tender and authentic in their line deliveries.

“Every Brilliant Thing” can’t be an easy show to produce. The topic alone is a hard sell; having a director who can visualize the story, second-guess every snafu and keep the ever-changing show on track is monumental; and finding an actor who can pull the whole thing off is near-impossible. But Cygnet has achieved the trifecta in this winning, moving and thoroughly original play.

“Every Brilliant Thing”

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursday, 8 p.m. Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through Sept. 16.

Where: Cygnet Theatre, 4040 Twiggs St., Old Town

Tickets: $25-$60

Phone: (619) 337-1525

Online: Twitter: @pamkragen