Review: ISLANDER at Olney Theatre Center

A new musical makes landfall with a fantastical song worthy of our attention

By: Apr. 14, 2024
Review: ISLANDER at Olney Theatre Center
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Islander: A New Musical makes landfall at Olney Theatre Center as part of its international tour, after having made a big splash at the 2019 Edinburgh Fringe Festival and an off-Broadway run in 2022. This unique work reaches deep into the canon of Scottish folklore to craft a new musical myth about the discordant divides that separate us, and the difficult understandings that can bring us back towards harmony.

Review: ISLANDER at Olney Theatre Center
Stephanie MacGaraidh and Sylvie Stenson in Islander
Photo by Nate Watters

A bit less of a musical in the traditional sense, Islander is something like a play that tells its story with sound as a medium unto itself. The entire production, with its twenty-something characters, is performed entirely by two actors who not only play their parts but also create and control the show’s soundscapes and musical accompaniments – live. In that way, like the whale songs that feature importantly in its plot, Islander uses singing as a means of communication just as much as artistic expression.

Composer/lyricist Finn Anderson’s hauntingly vibrant, folk-inspired score is conceived around a live looping station: an electronic musical device that allows the performers to record, modulate and play back their voices, transforming the minuscule cast’s singing into a powerful auditory feast that evokes everything from the sounds of the shore to the drip of a leaky roof to whale song and traditional Scottish instruments like bagpipes and penny whistles.

This astounding feat of juggling acting with constant singing with complex technical manipulation requires a tremendous deal from the cast – which is why performances are split among a revolving ensemble of four actors.

Review: ISLANDER at Olney Theatre Center
Sylvie Stenson and Stephanie MacGaraidh in Islander
Photo by Nate Watters

Press night featured Julia Murray (Arran) and Sylvie Stenson (Eilidh) – both of whom possess stunning voices and the ability to radically snap between instantly recognizable different characters on a dime – not to mention the confidence with which they approached the technical wizardry required of them. Murray’s angelic singing has an unimaginable beauty to it, while Stenson’s is strong and brassy. The two also have impeccable comedic chops, with Murray excelling in physical slapstick and Stenson joyfully caricaturing the sillier side characters of the story. And all this while providing all of the sound effects that make up the world of Islander with nothing but their mouths, microphones and some live mixing.

Islander begins with a folksong that tells of a violent rift between the Farmfolk and the Fisherfolk. With the farmers taking to the hills and trees and the fishers turning toward the seas, their world splits in two, creating Kinnan Island—the fictional setting of the play—and the sea between Kinnan and mainland Scotland.

Now, present-day Kinnan is in crisis. With a rapidly decreasing population and dimming economic prospects, the farming island’s remaining community is preparing to vote on whether to accept a government proposal that would resettle them on the mainland. This proposal has resulted in fierce debate within the island and no clear solution that will please all the inhabitants and their many divergent points of view.

Of all the Kinnanfolk, perhaps the most committed resident is teenaged Eilidh (Lois Craig/Sylvie Stenson), the youngest person on the island. One day she encounters a beached whale calf and in her desperate but futile attempts to save its life sings to it – it appears as if the dying whale sings back.

Later on that same shore, Eilidh meets Arran (Stephanie MacGaraidh/Julia Murray), a strange girl who appears to be the same age as Eilidh. Initially enthused about meeting someone her age after a lifetime spent solely in the company of those much older than her, their budding friendship stumbles when Arran begins to reveal more about where she comes from.

It turns out that, like Eilidh, Arran is also from a small island. Though the two islands seemingly share origin stories, in Arran’s telling the split does not result in Kinnan and the sea, but rather a mist-shrouded island that moves with the whales called Setasea. Unable to believe this story, Eilidh calls Arran a liar and leaves her stranded and alone. 

From there it is up to the two girls to discover the means to better understand each other and then work together, if not to fully resolve the many threads that run parallel through Islander’s whimsical narrative, then at least to bring them closer together.

This meticulously crafted narrative, conceived by Amy Draper—the play’s original director—and written by Stewart Melton, operates simultaneously on many levels that range from intimate family drama to coming-of-age adventure to grand, epic tale of man versus nature, with each commenting on and strengthening the other.

Melton’s script and associate director Eve Nicol’s nuanced staging work together to keep Islander rushing by in a brief, 90-minute one-act that convincingly conveys its powerful story and themes without ever feeling weighed down for a moment. There’s no need for props or set changes here as Anderson and sound designer Sam Kusnetz are fully able to illustrate every little detail of Islander’s fantastical world in the minds of the audience. Simon Wilkinson’s light design is barren and bold, sprinkling in finely judged touches of drama and excitement to the otherwise unchanging stage.

Review: ISLANDER at Olney Theatre Center
Lois Craig and Julia Murray in Islander
Photo by Sayed Alamy

One addition joining this bare-bones production for its tour is a new physical landscape by scenic designer Emma Bailey that serves as a perfectly fitting canvas – adding more dimensionality for the actors to explore but never getting in their way.

When all its pieces are added together, Islander takes on a dangerously ambitious concept and fully executes on every element of it. If there’s any trepidation that the two-person cast couldn’t possibly pull off the herculean task of switching between so many roles while vocalizing every sound effect and live looping at the same time, that concern vanishes with each affirmed beat of the opening song.

But for all these technical and logistical acrobatics, Islander is actually about so much more. The tools the show uses to tell its story are like a mist of some sort, in that they can both accentuate and obfuscate what lies behind them. The more time is spent in the world of Islander, the more that mist lifts, revealing a resonant and relevant fable that contains all the timelessness of the folktales that inspired it. If hard to grasp at first, the million little repetitions and echoes (the loops, if you will) of Islander’s gestures, sounds and beats build into a greater meaning.

The questions we are eventually left with are harsh ones, especially in today’s climate. Though a cliché, it is an unignorable truth that Islander opens against the backdrop of a world increasingly besieged by conflict and polarization. Within that unstopping noise Islander sings so that we might listen, because only if we listen can we ever begin to understand, and once we understand we might then find ourselves, maybe not fully resolving our divides, but at least coming ever so slightly closer together.

Review: ISLANDER at Olney Theatre Center
Stephanie MacGaraidh and Sylvie Stenson in Islander
Photo by Nate Watters

Islander: A New Musical plays through April 28, 2024 in the Roberts Mainstage Theatre at Olney Theatre Center. The production runs for approximately 90 minutes with no intermission and is family friendly.


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