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BWW Reviews: Upstream Theater Presents Challenging and Intriguing Production of David Greig's OUTLYING ISLANDS


Upstream Theater's production of Scottish playwright David Greig's Outlying Islands is an intriguing evening of theater, thoroughly confounding expectations, and providing plenty of food for thought. As a person who seeks out the unusual and unexpected, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself haunted by moments from it that linger in the memory long after viewing. Maybe it was all the references one character makes to Laurel and Hardy's classic 1937 film comedy Way Out West, or the fact that they actually break into a song from that film, warbling a drunken rendition of "The Trail of the Lonesome Pine". Whatever the cause, Philip Boehm's fine direction, and the wonderful work of an exceptional cast, help to make this a compelling and entertaining journey.

On the eve of war in 1939, the British ministry decides to send two Cambridge educated naturalists to survey the bird population on a remote, outlying island far off the coast of Scotland. Robert and Jack arrive to find a barely inhabitable hovel, sunken half underground into the island, but reasonably acceptable for their scholarly work. Only the government has other ideas in mind for this pristine sanctuary, whose only inhabitants are its surly owner, Kirk, his sheep, and his comely niece, Ellen. Some convivial drinking loosens Kirks tongue and it comes out that he's going to sell the island because the military wants to bomb it with anthrax laden materials in order to study the after effects on the wildlife. But, Robert has become obsessed with the island and the birds that inhabit it, seeing it as an untouched gem that must remain intact, and Jack has fallen for Ellen, even though he's too repressed to actually own up to the fact. What happens next is most unsettling.

Jason Cannon is fascinating as Robert, a man lacking a true moral compass, capable of justifying even the most heinous of crimes. Cannon shows us the passion in this misguided soul, who seems compelled to observe and report on everything he encounters, no matter how mundane or inappropriate. Scott McMaster is a study in contrast as John, the more pensive and painfully shy one of the pair. McMaster gives a terrific performance, making John the very model of repression as he strives to maintain a sense of dignity and decency no matter what the circumstances are.

Jerry Vogel amuses as Kirk, imbuing this crusty sheep farmer with a stubborn and ornery disposition. He's only interested in the money he can earn for letting the military do what they wish to his land, completely ignorant of the long term damage that could occur as a result. Vogel's at his best during an extended drunk scene near the end of the first act. Elizabeth Birkenmeier does strong work as Ellen, and lends a genuine sense of mystery to her portrayal. Birkenmeier deftly transitions from being awkwardly self-conscious to brazenly sexual as the play progresses.

Director Philip Boehm's work with the cast finds them all intense, focused, and fully vested in the material. However, the rather languid pace needs to be ratcheted up a bit to keep audience interest from waning. Michael Heil's set neatly conjures up the rustic atmosphere required, and Steve Carmichael's lighting, along with Josh Limpert's sound design, greatly enhances the overall mood. LaLonnie Lehman's costumes seemed completely believable and appropriate, and along with Bonnie Taylor's props, lend an air of authenticity.

Upstream Theater's challenging production of David Greig's Outlying Islands continues through April 25, 2010 at the Kranzberg Arts Center.

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