Previews begin on May 25th
By SHARON EBERSON
Mental health is no joke, so a comedy about depression might seem like a contradiction.
Not so, says Marcus Weiss, the performer at the center of the play Every Brilliant Thing, which springs from a child making a list of “every brilliant thing” that makes life worth living, so he can help his clinically depressed mother feel better.
A springboard of boundless energy, Weiss, a former Cirque du Soleil and Blue Man Group performer, points out that The New York Times’ Jason Zinoman recently wrote that grief is the emerging genre in standup comedy.
Marcus Weiss interacts with audience members during Every Brilliant Thing at Vegas Theatre Company. (Images: Richard Brusky/Courtesy of Vegas Theatre Co.)
“But it’s not just comedy,” said Andrew Paul. “It goes to some very dark places.”
“It” is Duncan Macmillan’s 2013 play, with Paul directing Weiss for his Kinetic Theatre.
It’s safe to say that it is an immersive theatrical experience with Weiss at the center of an audience that surrounds him in the Rauh Studio Theatre cast in other parts.
In Every Brilliant Thing, a 6-year-old boy attempts to ease his mother’s depression by creating a list of “all the best things in the world” for her. As he ages and the list grows, he learns the deep significance it has on his own life.
The (London) Guardian called the work “one of the funniest plays you’ll ever see about depression – and possibly one of the funniest plays you’ll ever see, full stop. There is something tough being confronted here – the guilt of not being able to make those we love happy – and it is explored with unflinching honesty.”
That was before we all were ensconced in a global health crisis, and many of us began to talk more openly about mental health. The play enlists the audience to form the ensemble and assist in the telling.
More recently, Arts Atlanta dubbed it “the perfect play for a pandemic moment.”
Weiss’s credentials to perform this piece, listed on his Instagram account, include Motivational Performer/Speaker; Communication/Connection Coach; Expression Specialist and Joy Spreader.
Paul and Weiss met as theater-makers in Las Vegas, where the director and actor worked together on productions including Take Me Out. However, this is the first time Paul is directing Weiss in this work, which Weiss performed previously with the Vegas Theatre Company.
For someone who says he has lived the story that is told in Every Brilliant Thing, Weiss’s positivity seems to be boundless. He explains that he is lucky to have landed with this mindset, in this moment, telling this story.
His experience as a performer and with this particular role gives him confidence that the audience will go with the flow of what Macmillan has created, and he can take it from there.
“The quote/unquote ‘participation’ is super gentle,” Weiss says. “It’s very fluid, very inviting, very engaging, and it’s all about bringing people together to ultimately feel safe. Whatever feeling you attach to it, it is ultimately life-affirming.”
Interacting with audience members is not new for Weiss, whose improvisational skills include performing as a Cirque clown.
Although Every Brilliant Thing might seem like the actor improvising an autobiographical story, it is not.
Paul explains that, originally, Macmillan performed the show himself, taking a cue from his own short story, titled Sleeve Notes. The playwright saw comedian Jonny Donahoe’s standup routine and recruited him to perform the show, then they continued to develop it together. Donahue is now credited as a major contributor to the play.
“Most people when they saw Macmillan do the show, they thought it was really his experience, because it seems so personal and so real,” Paul said, “And when people see Marcus do it again, they’re going to think it’s really his experience, but it’s very specific to the script.”
Weiss, judging from his intensity in conversation, is all-in as the character, but imbued with his own high-voltage energy.
“There are so many cool, calibrated moments in the show, and that’s what I am looking for,’’ Weiss says. “That’s how I work as a human being and as an artist. I thought it was important for the piece that one moment you’re here – and then I’m modeling it with all of us on this journey in real time – and the next moment you’re there. … What I am doing is shifting, like an actor does. Shifting the script, shifting a feeling, shifting my body and boom, it’s a new moment.”
It’s easy to forget, listening to Weiss’s enthusiasm, that the jumping off point for Every Brilliant Thing is a boy whose mother is in the hospital for “doing something stupid,” according to his father.
Depression is one of the most common mental disorders in the United States, affecting approximately 1 in 4 Americans.
Weiss’s own backstory, what he brings to each performance, is harrowing.
He shares that he was anorexic while studying at Dartmouth College and on and off medication in his 20s and early 30s, and “I almost killed myself – not just figuratively, like, literally.” There were days, this very fit man says, when it hurt to walk upstairs and sit on chairs.
And then one day while he was at Dartmouth, along came “a whisper from the universe,” and he looked up to see the sun peeking out from – not being covered by – a cloud.
“I think I may have smiled a bit, and I started jogging, but jogging to me was like” – he demonstrates plodding along.
“But that moment was a turning point,” Weiss relates. “It was the beginning of healing.”
Healing … empathy … hope … those are some of the feelings that actor and director hope to evoke when Every Brilliant
“All good theater is a communal experience,” Paul says. “And one of the things that really strikes me is, about three quarters of the way through the play, the audience, it finally dawns on them that they’re the support group that’s basically with him on this journey.”
TICKETS AND DETAILS
Kinetic Theatre’s production of Every Brilliant Thing is at the University of Pittsburgh’s Richard E. Rauh Studio Theatre, Cathedral of Learning, 4200 Fifth Ave., Oakland. Previews are May 25-26. The show runs Thursday-Sunday, May 27-June 11. Tickets: $42 in advance, $45 at the door, $20 for people 25 and younger with valid I.D. via Showclix, 1-888-718-4253 or https://kinetictheatre.org.