Last night in the lobby of the Elision Playhouse, I ran into a friend and we shared a quick hug. I apologized for being sweaty, having just hopped off my bike.
“It’s okay,” she said. “You’re human!”
It’s starting to feel that way again. We were at the Crystal venue to be part of one of the first audiences for professional theater to be conventionally staged — that is, on a stage inside a theater — in Minnesota in well over a year. I’ll confess to feeling a little emotional about that fact as the lights went down, but then the actors emerged and there was a story to tell.
No simple story, at that. Islander, described by creator Amy Draper as “a devised a capella musical for two actresses,” emerged in Scotland in 2017 and finds its young protagonist Eilidh facing challenges ranging from boredom to displacement to death (both human and cetacean) when a mysterious new friend named Arran lands, sopping and shivering, on the “wee isle” Eilidh calls home.
The show is presented with a rotating cast; I saw Christine Wade as Eilidh and Emily Dussault as Arran. (Deirdre Cochran plays Arran at many of the performances, which run through July 31.) The two-hander becomes multi-vocal not only as the performers flip fluidly through the island’s mixed deck of characters, employing gradations of accent that would give even Streep grief, but through an onstage looping board that allows the singers to create their own backing tracks as the show progresses.
It’s a neat trick and no mean feat for the actors, who carry the show confidently under the direction of Lindsay Fitzgerald. Wisely, the songs by Finn Anderson (Stewart Melton wrote the book) are deployed to strong narrative, and often lightly comic, effect. In rhythmic lines that sometimes verge on rap, the songs dramatize exchanges among characters at such occasions as an island meeting where the residents try to get past the lingering mystery of what happened to one man’s stolen garden gnome. The music has the effect of highlighting just how close the characters’ lives are despite their differences.
Islander covers a lot of ground in its single 75-minute act, and to the creators’ credit it doesn’t strain for a tidy resolution to the pain in Eilidh’s family and community. (I won’t even try to explain how Arran’s arc gets resolved, except to say that it takes the practice of water birth to a whole new level.) In the end, the plot is less important than the atmosphere the production conjures, replete with projections of atmospheric aerial photography. The actors’ humane and deeply connected performances effectively highlight the material’s more down-to-earth aspects, without getting lost in the mythological mists that constantly beckon.
At the end of the show there was a standing ovation; it was well-earned by the committed actors and their production team, but as Dussault and Wade turned to exchange relieved grins there was a sense that they were also receiving applause on behalf of the thousands of local theater artists who’ve endured the profoundest of barriers to practicing their craft over the past sixteen months. Now they’re back, and their characters’ special handshake — where each girl grasps her own hands, standing at a distance from the other — is just an inside joke. If they’d wanted, they could have hugged.