If there’s any kind of warning I would have to give you before you watch “Lungs” and “Every Brilliant Thing,” it’s to come with open ears and open hearts.
This is because both plays by Duncan Macmillan require utmost and rapt attention if you truly want to allow yourself to be moved by both pieces.
Presented under the banner of Sandbox Fest 2023, the two plays form a twin-bill experience, meaning you can watch the two Macmillan plays on the same day, with just one ticket.
“Lungs” follows conversations and moments between M and W, played alternately by Reb Atadero and Sab Jose, and Justine Peña and Brian Sy. It starts off with the young adult couple deciding (or “having a conversation!”) whether to have a child. Amid various circumstances like the worsening climate crisis, the ailing economy, and the troubling, messed-up side of society, is it really right and good to bring forth another human into this world?
It is this loaded and complex question—er, conversation—that kicks off the show’s first act. The audience, seated in the round, witnesses all of the couple’s interactions. From their back and forth in Ikea, to their morning niceties, even to the most intimate moment preceding their love-making. Like a fly on the wall, the audience is privy to every word, every hushed sentence—from calming whispers to long, overthought tirades.
These conversations are familiar: either one had personally with loved ones, or thoughts we may have pondered on some sleepless nights. It’s all too relatable, too real; knowing how hard it is to live on this planet as it is now, we can only imagine how much worse it might get for future generations (or how much better, if we’re being hopeful). And knowing what we know now about how adults and the environment shape a child as they grow… it begs the question: Are we good enough adults to raise a good human being?
I watched Jose and Atadero bring this story to life on Sandbox Fest’s opening weekend, and it was both a ride and a treat seeing them give a voice to the questions and scenarios I (and many of us adults) have.
Jose’s and Atadero’s characters are seemingly a case of opposites attract: W is a post-graduate student, smart, a voracious reader, and more socially aware. Meanwhile, M is a freelancer, a musician, whose reading habits have only been developed by his relationship with W. He’s creative, quite charming, and has an energy and vibe that just matches up to W’s even if they appear to come from worlds apart. Atadero’s M is also able to balance out, even pacify the oftentimes erratic overthinker in Jose’s W. Definitely the kind of couple with a fascinating and compelling story—and the play shows us exactly what that is.
“Lungs” shows us all the very real problems and situations we encounter not just in our relationships, but throughout life, adulthood, too. How do we compromise when we decide we want something so life-changing as wanting and raising a child? How do we deal with loss, and how do we comfort each other amidst this? Do we give each other space? Do we need to say anything, or should this all be obvious? How do you manage when someone you thought you’d build a life with breaks your trust? What do you do when they find themselves back in your life?
True to the show’s title, you’ll really need to make use of your lungs to catch your breath by the end of it. Partly because of how the material is paced—it’s packed with dialogue, and there are no distinct transitions between the changing of the scenes. We jump through moments and milestones in M and W’s lives, almost as if we’re trying to catch up with them. And that’s what makes it so important to listen. (Much like real life, which passes by us in a flash if we don’t pay attention.) But you’d probably also need to steady your breathing by the end of it, if, like me, you’re likely to be moved to tears.
But for all the weighty questions and conversations ”Lungs” has put forth, it ends in what I’d like to think of as a softness of breath. One of a life fully lived, and one that despite all the odds, ends with hope that it all turns out for the better.
The second act is the more interactive “Every Brilliant Thing,” featuring Kakki Teodoro, Teresa Herrera, and Jon Santos alternating for the role of narrator. (Santos is set to perform the Filipino translation of the play entitled “Bawat Bonggang Bagay.”)[READ: 5 brilliant things about the one-woman play ‘Every Brilliant Thing’]
The one-(wo)man show follows the narrator as they share details of their life, changed and influenced greatly by their mother’s struggle with her mental health.
The narrator, as a young child, comes up with a list of “every brilliant thing” as a way to inspire their mother to find reasons to keep living. The list continues to evolve and expand throughout their life, and soon becomes an inspiring tool for more people—the audience included. It’s not surprising that many show-goers find themselves inspired to list down their own brilliant things—reminders for gratitude and a life worth living.
But what truly makes the show interactive is how the narrator actively involves almost each and every member of the audience, be it by assigning them one brilliant thing (slips of paper with numbered items are handed out randomly, and are to be read out loud when the narrator calls out specific numbers), or actually asking them to play the roles of certain key people in the narrator’s life—from their father, their school counselor, college professor, and even lover.
This time around, I watched Teodoro’s take on the story, and what really stood out for me was how totally engaging and welcoming she was.
Even before the play began, amid intermission, she was already making her rounds through the small theater space, trying to get to know the audience of the day. Her disposition has been so warm that it’s easy to relax and allow yourself to be vulnerable. Although the material has its serious points, especially as it talks about depression, suicide, and the proper way to talk about it, Teodoro was able to delicately steer the show, taking the entire audience through high and low points—laughter and tears—with much care.
I also appreciated how even if she was essentially performing the original English version of the play, the production this time around was able to insert more local references (think Katinko, iconic OPM diva songs!). Teodoro also didn’t shy away from responding to her audience co-actors in Filipino when it seemed natural to do so.
The brilliant thing about this play is that even if its story doesn’t change, each show is still guaranteed to be different and fresh. A more forthright co-actor in the role of the narrator’s lover may induce a more kilig-filled show, while a more empathetic co-actor for the school counselor could very well be as capable of bringing the rest of the room to tears as well as the narrator could. (That’s exactly what happened during the show I watched.)
It takes great improvisation and a lot of openness for the actors like Teodoro to still navigate the show towards its intended flow and message, despite half of the show basically being left to the air, at the hands of the audience for the hour.
But more than its technical aspects, what I truly appreciate about “Every Brilliant Thing” are the messages at its core. It was already gut-wrenching when I saw it for the first time in 2020. But seeing it again three years later after so much has changed in the world and in my personal life was just wholeheartedly cathartic.
Allow me to be a little vulnerable in this review (after all that is what the play requires): Coming into the theater, I knew my heart was going to be up for a bit of a beating. But I didn’t think I’d be a sobbing mess by the end. And all for a simple, almost so simply obvious message: Sometimes we’re happy, sometimes we’re sad, and that’s okay. If at some point in your life, you feel depressed, don’t give up. It gets better. There’s still going to be a brilliant thing—or a million brilliant things!—to live for.
There are so many shows I’d label as “necessary theater,” mostly for its social importance, but for “Every Brilliant Thing,” I’d say it’s necessary for your soul. Watch it. For yourself, more than anything else.
Sandbox Fest 2023 featuring “Lungs” and “Every Brilliant Thing”/“Bawat Bonggang Bagay” runs until July … at the BGC Arts Center. “Lungs” is directed by Caisa Borromeo, starring Sab Jose and Reb Atadero, and Justine Peña and Brian Sy. “Every Brilliant Thing” is directed by Jenny Jamora, featuring Kakki Teodoro, Teresa Herrera, and Jon Santos.