Art Notes: JAG one-man show tackles ‘Every Brilliant Thing’

By ALEX HANSON

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 04-27-2023 4:28 PM

The late Joan Didion published hundreds of thousands of words but is likely still best known for a single short sentence: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

The weight of that line varies depending on the circumstances of the storyteller. Sometimes “in order to live” means just to get up, go to work and lead a normal life; sometimes it means “to stay alive.”

The protagonist of “Every Brilliant Thing,” a 2013 play opening this weekend in a new staging by JAG Productions in White River Junction’s Briggs Opera House, knows the full weight of those words. The play’s narrator describes how he coped growing up with a mother who first tried to take her own life when he was only seven. The boy starts making a list of all the things that can make him happy, and keep his mom alive, he hopes, which becomes the basis for the play.

The play has a special resonance for JAG founder Jarvis Antonio Green, who will make it his first starring role in a JAG Productions show. Six months ago, he endured a bout of depression, partly a remnant of the coronavirus pandemic, and when he came out of it, he decided that what he needed was to get back on stage. The vehicle the company has chosen is unusually personal. It promises to reveal more about Green than what he’s offered during 12 years as a performer and director in the Upper Valley.

“There’s a vulnerability component to this,” Green said in a recent phone interview. “As much as people think they know me, and think they understand who I am … there’s still quite a bit of distance between knowing my work and knowing me.”

As written by the British playwright Duncan Macmillan and Irish actor Johnny Donahoe, who originated the narrator’s role, the play gives a theater company wide latitude in how to stage it, urging them to make it their own. The brilliant things of the title are adaptable, too, Green said, which is what makes this production an expression of who he is. He’s inhabiting a character, while also inhabiting his own life. The company took the script through a week of development. “We made it so it would fit me and my experience,” Green said.

The play also is an example of immersive theater, where the performers and the audience occupy the same space and work together to make the performance. Each night’s show will be unique in that regard. Audience members will be given pieces of paper with items on the narrator’s list written on them. Reviewing the show for The New York Times when it opened Off Broadway in 2014, Ben Brantley wrote that he was handed No. 999,997, which was “the alphabet.”

Brantley also wrote that “Every Brilliant Thing” is “pretty much guaranteed to keep your eyes brimming.” The Guardian called it “one of the funniest plays you’ll ever see about depression.” But the immersive aspect of it requires the audience’s full presence in a way that a show with a traditional fourth wall might not.

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That said, a person’s presence at this show is meant to feel comfortable. “So much of immersive theater is almost like making fun of the audience,” Green said. “This show does the opposite of that.”

Green wasn’t familiar with this play until someone suggested it to him, and he liked the challenge of a one-person show made in collaboration with the audience. He called the production “almost a thank-you to this community that has supported me since I moved here.”

It’s conceivable that this could be the last JAG show in the Upper Valley. Company officials have said the company won’t have sufficient time in the Briggs Opera House to use it next season now that Shaker Bridge Theatre has leased the venerable performance space. Green said he’s focused on the production for now. The company will hold a retreat to discuss its future thereafter.

“I think out of that, the path forward will emerge,” he said.

In the meantime, there’s a story to tell.

JAG Productions opens “Every Brilliant Thing” in the Briggs Opera House in White River Junction with preview performances Thursday and Friday night and an opening night show on Saturday night. For tickets ($20 for previews, $43 for subsequent shows) and more information, go to jagproductionsvt.com.

No ‘Baroque’ puns, thank you

Upper Valley Baroque will perform Monteverdi’s Vespers in two shows this weekend. The first, on Saturday night at 7 p.m. in Hanover’s Street Denis Catholic Church, sounds like an opportunity to hear sacred music performed in a sacred space. But I’d be more inclined to check out the second show, at 3 p.m. Sunday in Randolph’s Chandler Music Hall, which is justly celebrated for its acoustics.

Regardless of the venue, a performance like this offers an opportunity to hear music played on period instruments, so it will sound like what its composer imagined. It’s a form of time travel every bit as potent as going to a Shakespeare play or looking at a Rembrandt.

For tickets ($15-$45) or more information, go to uppervalleybaroque.org, or call 203-240-1164.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.

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