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Interactive theater: Amidst despair, always hope

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TERESA HERRERA stars in Every Brilliant Thing.

By Maria Jovita Zarate

THEATER REVIEW
Every Brilliant Thing
By Duncan MacMillan
Directed by Jenny Jamora
Sandbox Collective and
9 Works Theatrical
March 15, 8:30 p.m., March 16
and 17 at 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.
Maybank Performing Arts Center,
BGC Arts Center, 26th St., BGC, Taguig City


SHE GLIDES onto the stage, lithe and nimble, and randomly distributes what seem like rectangular flashcards to members of the audience. There are numbers and words written on those cards. She instructs them to hold on to those cards and remember the numbers and words written on them.

And then the performance area in this theater-in-the-round fully lights up, the play starts — but the house lights stay on, at least partially, to render the audience visible. Project Runway host-turned-actress Teresa Herrera re-enters the stage to play the part of an unnamed daughter who we first come to know as a seven-year-old dealing with the death of her dog and wrestling with the question “why does my mother want to take her life?”

Her father provides the answer: “Your mother says nothing in life is worth living for.”

And so, the seven-year-old builds a list of things worth living for. Every brilliant thing, she calls them. Number 1: ice cream. Number 3: Staying up past bedtime. She wanted to convince her mother that there are many reasons to want to keep on living. Time and again, she would yell out the numbers and those holding on to those cards would yell back the words written on them. Number 12! Kung Fu movies! Number 96! Shooting milk out of your nose.

The list grows longer and at a certain point we know that she is also writing the list for herself, as she deals with the intricate givens of family and circumstance. At one point the list is shelved, almost forgotten, until a lover retrieves it in between the pages of a book she has lent him.

She works on the list again, but this time she is doing it for herself, looking for what the outwardly trivial moments could offer to her as she battles her own demons. Now on the list: Falling in love! Sex! Nina Simone on vocals!

Every Brilliant Thing is about seeing life through the prism of these minutiae so that we may hold them up to the light and let them gleam against the shadows of despair. At one point, in a moment of epiphany, she seems to have snapped out of her desolation, and, with a sense of urgency, compellingly admonishes the audience: “I have some advice for anyone who has been contemplating suicide. It is really simple advice: Don’t do it. Things get better. They may not really be brilliant but they get better.”

Playwright Duncan Macmillan brings to his material two masterstrokes which director Jenny Jamora generously recovers from the written text and makes luminous in this Philippine production of Every Brilliant Thing.

First, the interactive portions which sees the performer breaking — nay, smashing — the invisible fourth wall that divides performers from the audience. The lead actress snaps out of her character and invites a member of the audience to play a part — the guidance counsellor who dresses her hand with a sock to converse with a child; the father, sometimes too taciturn, sometimes nurturing; the college crush turned lover turned estranged husband.

The interactive portions thrive on an improvisatory spirit, eliciting mostly spontaneous reactions from the bit player plucked from the audience. He or she may fumble with the lines, or take to the task with raw enthusiasm, but invariably these moments draw light-hearted laughter from the audience. The onus is still on Teresa Herrera’s improvisational skills to steer the performance back to its track.

These interactive moments disrupt the emotional arc of what could otherwise be a slow descent to darkness owing to the theme — depression and suicide, and the immense toll it leaves on the immediate family. But interactivity as a stylistic strategy allows emotions to ebb and tide, move from dark to light, despair to hope. Always hope.

We know little about the mother except that she was suicidal and was quite reflexive about it. After the mother’s second attempt, the daughter recalls how her mother drew out a hearty laugh as the two sat in the kitchen and wallowed in each other’s silence. But the mother still ignored the list or it may not have been enough to prevent the inevitable tragedy. We also don’t know much about the father except that he stayed with the mother until that inevitable and saw through his daughter’s rites of passage.

Here comes the second masterstroke from the playwright: when less is a lot in character-building for the theater. Except for the unnamed daughter, which Teresa Herrera makes alive with sensuous precision, MacMillan’s characters are all disembodied and come to us physicalized only in those brief moments when a bit player is recruited from the audience to improvise with the lead actress.

But a singular detail shines — her father’s penchant for jazz music, and his periodic retreats to his study to listen to jazz greats (Curtis Mayfield, Ray Charles, and surely many more), where he drops vinyl records on a phonograph, and treats us to the warmth of analogue sound (skillfully rendered by sound designer Arvy Dimaculangan) — until you hear the pops, and the crackles, as fallible as the life they are holding on to. Beyond the text, you imagine how the melodic currents of jazz allow him to fold into his self as he wrestles with frustration and, most likely, with the fears that arise from anticipating his wife’s end of life.

Before the lights are switched off, the unnamed daughter mentions the 1,000,000th entry to her list of every brilliant thing which seals the enduring bond she’s always had with her father. From the theater speakers roll out what could be the almost inaudible sound of the needle hitting the vinyl, and you think something immense is about to happen, but here now is the hiss and crackle of analog music, strangely sultry and nostalgic, then the vocalist croons… “Into each life some rain must fall/but too much is falling in mine…” The denouement is light and a delight. And hope. Always hope.

And then it’s dark. And then the lights are back. Teresa Herrera enters the stage and calls on the bit players to join her in the curtain call.

The author is a member of the jury of Gawad Buhay, the country’s first industry awards body for the performing arts. She teaches at the University of the Philippines Open University.