19 March 2019

Notes on 'Every Brilliant Thing'

Every Brilliant Thing by Duncan Macmillan. The Sandbox Collective; director: Jenny Jamora. (Maybank Performing Arts Theater, 15 March 2019)

"If you get through your entire life without ever once feeling crushingly depressed, then you probably haven't been paying attention," says Angela in Every Brilliant Thing. Quickly comes to mind Phillip Lopate's assertion in the stunning essay, Against Joie De Vivre: "To be happy, one must pay attention, but to be unhappy one must have also paid attention."

The brighter side of the paradox is toned up in Duncan Macmillan's interactive play, recently staged by The Sandbox Collective. In an attempt to bring hope to her suicidal mother, Angela (Teresa Herrera) creates for her a long list of brilliant things.

List-making is a rather brilliant thing in itself. So commonplace a practice, we forget that our every day is a struggle at stitching together fragments — of ideas, moments and images — to form something that resembles a life. The same goes for the play, which great success is in hiding the machinery of ice-breaking under the guise of a story.

It moves in centripetal motion, talking about suicide without talking about it. There's no character exposition here. No diving deep into a depressive's psyche. To us, Angela is a protagonist, but to the playwright, she simply is NARRATOR, someone who could be played by any actor of any gender, age, or ethnicity. Macmillan even requests that the word not be mentioned in souvenir programs or production materials.

And the ruse works. A generic character allows viewers to easily inhabit her mental space; and continue the threads of thought she has started. Her name is in fact a product of the improv variables the night I watched — and it might as well be anyone's name: mine, yours, a friend's.

Teresa Herrera stars in the the one-woman show.

Herrera takes on a more serious, melancholic approach to the Narrator. Which doesn't mean that she has sucked out the fun from the script. Rather, she justifies its improvisational design by being vulnerable, thereby highlighting trust (to the audience and what they represent in the unfolding narrative).

When we find ourselves in a shaky situation, what do we do? Seek help, the show seems to recommend. It goes both ways. Whom should we ask? How should we respond to difficult questions — whether it's a straightforward, "Why did mom kill herself?" or a vague yet loaded, "How are you?"

Every Brilliant Thing has no pretensions of solving mental health issues. What it does effectively is discuss the matter in the terms it prescribes, first of all by putting a spotlight on the taboo. As a theater experience, director Jenny Jamora has managed to provide a feel-good, resonant performance that is neither gimmicky nor dismissively platitudinous.

We can misconstrue the show's fixation with the positives as an unproductive act of shunning the negatives. For me, it's an acknowledgement of our minds' impenetrability. Who knows what really goes on in there? If and when we decide to speak to another, will words ever be a reliable translator of our innermost selves?

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