Every Brilliant Thing at the Jungle Theater is Dead Brilliant!

Joy Dolo. Photo by Lauren B. Photography

The Jungle Theater in Minneapolis has reopened with a one hour somewhat interactive play written by Duncan Macmillan, with Jonny Donahoe. Now don’t misunderstand me, you will not be influencing the course of the play and this isn’t improv, but there is a bit of flexing that muscle on display. You will be required to read a sentence or a word from a piece of paper when called upon. In a few cases you will be asked to do a little more. For instance, I had to give a speech at a wedding off the top of my head, but nothing more than that in most cases. Every Brilliant Thing is a one actor, one audience play. The actor in the performance I saw was Joy Dolo. She is telling the story of a woman whose mother attempted suicide when she was seven years old. The seven year old’s response to her mother’s wish to die was to make a list of every brilliant thing she could think of that made life worth living to show her Mom. Number one, Ice Cream! We follow this young lady through her life and as she grows, so does her list. It’s a lesson in taking note of all the good things even when we are not feeling well or happy. It’s a simple idea, but it’s a very powerful one. Think if you sat and made a list of Every Brilliant Thing. Not the OK things, but just the brilliant things. What would you do with such a list? What would its power be? I’d take it out when I was feeling overwhelmed, sad, hopeless, and remind myself that there is more to life than this moment, this pain, this struggle.

I like the idea so much that I’m going to start my own list right now. The first thing on my list of brilliant things is Joy Dolo’s performance in Every Brilliant Thing. There simply is no actor more engaging and welcoming with the ability to make you laugh and cry in the space of seconds. She single handedly shepherds a cast of dozens of unrehearsed people to create a unified, coherent story. The audience participation seems like a gimmick at first, there to provide some humor and get people into the swing of things, maybe just to keep them paying attention. But that isn’t it, you don’t need a gimmick to keep people’s attention when Dolo is on stage. And the participation adds more than humor, it build connection at least it did for this blogger. When I toasted my daughter on her wedding night, I thought back to the car rides we’d shared in silence and the times I shut myself away in my den to listen to music rather than help her understand what was happening. I wished her all the happiness and prayed for her forgiveness. Some performers are loud, or wild, or powerful and they scream “look at me!!”. Dolo, doesn’t do that, she invites you in, you look at her, you pay attention to her, not because she is demanding it, but because you really really want to. She is open to the audience in a way that lets you in immediately. While she is coaching the audience through their parts, she never loses her character. As for the rest of the cast it will depend on your audience, I thought the fellow playing the Father was quite good the night I went, considering he didn’t know he’d even been cast.

I have to say that I had sort of read a brief description of the play, saw it’s run time was only an hour, and thought with so many shows finally opening up I’d give this one a miss with the packed schedule. I was urged by another blogger not to miss this show and I’m glad I took her advice. Every Brilliant Thing is not to be missed. I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve seen since the theaters reopened, for me this has been the most rewarding of my post pandemic excursions. The show is directed by Meredith McDonough with the unique tasks of directing two different performers in the same role. Jucoby Johnson actually plays the lead in most performances with Joy Dolo appearing every Thursday of the run. I have not seen Jucoby Johnson’s performance but there is an excellent review here by Cherry and Spoon . The Theater has been transformed from it’s usual configuration into a theatre in the round venue by Scenic and Costume Designer Mina Kinukawa and it really enables Dolo and Johnson to get that engagement with the audience going. It was the right decision for this show, and plays a key part in establishing an all in this together vibe. The other technical aspect that really deserves a shout out is the Sound Design by Montana Johnson. Music is minimal but key, it’s use always important to the story and very effective. I particularly liked being reminded of Daniel Johnston and always good to hear a little Ray Charles.

Every Brilliant Thing runs through November 14th at the Jungle Theater in the Lynlake area near Uptown Minneapolis. For more information about the show and to purchase tickets go to https://www.jungletheater.org.

A Doll’s House, Part 2 at Jungle Theater in Uptown

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Photo by Lauren B. Photography

A Doll’s House written by Henrik Ibsen in 1879 was a controversial play that challenged societal and theatrical institutions. Ibsen is known as the father of realism and A Doll’s House along with his other great works are the reason for that label. In that play we see Nora, a devoted wife and mother, struggle with a secret she has long held. With it’s reveal and her husbands reaction, she learns that her value to him lies in her subservience, in her being exactly what he wants her to be. At the end of A Doll’s House, Nora leaves her Husband and Children to begin a life of her own. The play was shocking at the time, now it resembles any play you might see. In the later half of the 19th century it was a daring exploration of gender roles and the rights of women. You can see why Ibsen is seen as one of the most influential playwrights of his time. A Doll’s House, Part 2 was written by Lucas Hnath in 2017 and picks up the story 15 years later when Nora returns. This is the story that unfolds at the Jungle Theater this winter.

Nora played by Christina Baldwin, has come back because she needs something from Torvald played by Steven Epp, the husband she left. She first meets with Anne Marie played by Angela Timberman, the family Nanny who is still with Torvald even though the children have grown beyond the need for a nanny. She will also meet her daughter Emmy played by Megan Burns, who she hopes can assist her in getting Torvald to give her what she needs. And of course she must confront Torvald himself. What is fascinating about this play, is pointed out by Jungle Theater’s Artistic Director Sarah Rasmussen in her Welcome message at the front of the program. She quotes a mentor of hers who used to say “in a good play, everyone is right”, and this play is the perfect illustration of that idea. As each character gives their perspective on the past, the present, and society, we believe their point of view has merit. This is a play that while not as revolutionary as the original, how could it be, is perhaps a more inclusive examination of gender roles and societies attitudes towards relationships. It can afford to be, because it is written in a different world than Ibsen was writing back in 1879. In A Doll’s House Nora sees the world for all it’s biases and chooses to defy them and claim personhood for herself. It is a critique of society and the lack of rights for women. At the time, as hard as that is to comprehend now, that went against what society deemed acceptable. The new story continues those themes through Nora’s character. But it also delves into less black and white areas of the conversation. We see what Anne Marie’s views on the subject are and also what Emmy and Torvald believe. They all have their own truths and what makes the play seem real is we can understand and believe that each of their truths are right, for them.

So far this sounds like a a drama full of big ideas right. What was surprising and refreshing was the astonishing amount of humor in the play. From the opening credits, that’s right credits, you know this is not your Mother’s a Doll’s House. This is not a modern updating of the material it is still the late 1800’s but it’s is filtered through our 21st Century Aesthetic. The performances are modern as is the language. The entire cast is exceptional. Baldwin shines whether she is espousing her ideals or drawing out our laughs with her reactions to the other characters speeches. One moment she is rousing our sense of indignation, the next she is breaking our hearts. Timberman plays Anne Marie in a way that at first we believe she is more or less there as comic relief, but in an instance we are shown that there is more there than just laughs. At one point she elicits laughs while also making us feel the sacrifices she has made for this family. Epp plays Torvald as a slightly less confident version than we usually see in A Doll’s house. At first I was unsure of that approach, but as the play progressed I understood that this was a man who had his confidence shaken 15 years ago. He is also a man who has thought about the things Nora said before she walked out the door. He is also playing a man who has had a shock and isn’t really dealing with it very well. All of this is played truthfully, there is an emotionality to it that makes him a much more human character than Ibsen gave us, which speaks to that quote that everyone is right. But as with the entire cast he finds so much humor in the way he plays the part, but never at the cost of his characters truth. Megan Burns turn as Emmy is the smallest role but she makes an impression in her scene. She matches Baldwin’s ability to turn the situation around, convincingly making arguments that ring true while also bringing laughs. Many of the laughs in the play come from the way these actors read the lines and react to each others. The play is definitely meant to be serious and comic, but I think all four of these actors find more laughs through their performances than were there on the page, and they are very welcome laughs.

The direction by Joanie Schultz is bold. There are music and projection choices that scream 2020, but they work, without taking us out of the period of the play. Everyone behind the scenes has done a great job with this production, the Scenic Design by Chelsea M. Warren is spare but effective and fitting for the script. This is a play that focuses on the interaction between the characters, we do not need a fully dressed set to bring these characters world to life. The design works perfectly with the text projection that appears throughout the performance. The Sound Design by Sean Healey also brings an effective juxtaposition between the period the play is set in and our modern times. I am not a person that usually takes a lot of notice of costuming, but I really dug Mathew J. Lefebvre’s work here. My favorite was Nora’s purple outfit, it is sleek and stylish, it instantly shows us that Nora has been successful in the 15 years since the ending of a Doll’s House.

A Doll’s House, Part 2 is a worthy follow up to one of the great plays of the last 200 hundred years. The Jungle theater has assembled a cast that brings depth and humor to this play, each actor finding their characters’ truth and convincing us of it as well. This is a night out that will keep you thinking and give you much to talk about after you leave the theater, but it will do it while also making you laugh, a lot! It plays through February 23rd at the Jungle Theater. For more information and to purchase tickets go to www.jungletheater.org