by Ellen Dostal
In Bill Berry’s solo show THE BRICK: A ONE MAN MUSICAL, Berry isn’t addressing the audience in a theater. He’s on a beach having a two-way conversation with his dead mother and we are the accidental eavesdroppers who witness their complicated relationship unfold piecemeal. The convention is more akin to a play than a typical solo performance, a smart decision that sidesteps many of the pitfalls solo artists often fall into. It isn’t self-indulgent, doesn’t require that the audience be his scene partner, and lets each person take the journey with him by not establishing a foregone conclusion.
We meet Berry carefully picking his way over the rocks on an unnamed beach. There is a pained determination in his eyes as he lays out his beach towel, places his cooler, and pulls out his guitar. The purpose of his visit is to have a conversation with his mom to decide whether he will speak her name for the last time, at which point she will have experienced her third death.
The idea is part of neuroscientist David Eagleman’s theory of three deaths. The first occurs when a person physically dies, the second when they are buried, and the third, when their name is spoken for the last time, thus completing the cycle of death.
For Berry, the decision means telling the truth about a past no child should have to endure. A workaholic father and an alcoholic mother who demeans her son by repeatedly calling him a loser might set the stage for a one-sided accusatory tale. But rather than a simple blame game, Berry is more thoughtful in his approach.
He decides to tell her what it was like growing up from his perspective as a child left to fend for himself. The stories are poignant, unsettling, and often wickedly humorous despite their regrettable subjects. A boy wading through a grown-up world without the tools to maneuver it instilled by a good parent can easily fall prey to those who would take advantage, as his experience with a gardener ten years his senior reveals. Berry’s gift is in finding the humor in the pain and, because he is disarmingly honest, we instantly empathize with him.
He divulges the bleak reality of his home life in a memory about an electrical blackout. In his home, they sit silently by a single candle casting only enough light for his mother to see her bottle. At an opportune moment he escapes to his friend’s house where he finds the family having an ice cream party, eating all their ice cream before it can melt. Asked if he wants mint chip or fudge ripple, Berry is so taken aback at the laughter and joy he sees that he can’t even answer. “Is this what a normal family is like?” he wonders.
In ten songs and 85 minutes, he continues to get down and dirty with his mom as he tries to resolve the puzzlement of his formative years and how they impacted all of his decisions in life. The unfortunate (and comic) consequences of a one night stand, a night in jail after “stealing Steve Martin,” and a cockfight that saved his life show him to be a masterful storyteller regardless of the style of song. His insightful lyrics capture the essence of a fragile moment (how odd that other parents have time in the afternoon to watch their sons play baseball) as easily as a highly-charged one (“you can tell a lot about a man by what he uses his brick for”) .
As an actor, Berry is naturally open and vulnerable. As a musician, he flies. At this performance, the audience was so acutely tuned to his energy I don’t even think they realized they were singing softly along with him on “Two Crows,” a haunting song about the wisdom of age. That kind of organic connection is something that cannot be manufactured and I found it to be incredibly powerful. It helps that he knows how to write a song with a hook that stays with you even after you’ve left the theater.
The metamorphosis that takes place on this cathartic musical journey is a rich one and it is beautifully directed by Kelly DeSarla. What could become a dark descent into hell instead shimmers with a light touch making the show’s poignant message all the more powerful in its subtlety. Berry never overplays his hand but holds firm in the truthfulness of his narrative. Feet firmly planted in the sand like a kid, armed with six strings and his soul, he is an inherently likable human being and one helluva writer. Bonus – the guy knows how to tell a good joke.
If you’re in Canada this summer, you can see Berry’s musical in one of two locations: The Regina International Fringe Theatre Festival (July 11-15) or The 37th Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival (August 16-26). You’d be crazy to miss it the next time he presents it in LA. For more information about upcoming local performances, go to www.billberrymusic.com.
THE BRICK: A ONE-MAN MUSICAL
February 1, 2018 (closed)
Whitefire Theatre 13500 Ventura Blvd.
Sherman Oaks, CA 91423
Photo credit: James F. Dean