Stay or go? It’s the fraught question confronting the dwindling population of Kinnan, a tiny isle somewhere off the Scottish coast that’s being knocked about by a churning sea of fading myth and heartbreaking reality. Or, to put it another way, the fictional Kinnan is located in what Rod Serling might call “the dimension of imagination.” That’s a place fewer theater people know these days given the financial imperatives of putting on a cookie-cutter show, especially after the pandemic (is it after the pandemic yet?). But it’s where Kinnan exists and is brought to stunning life in the new musical Islander.
Conceived and directed by Amy Draper, Islander is a largely aural experience, leaning heavily on Sam Kusnetz and Kevin Sweetser’s incredibly inventive sound design and the titanic talents, both conventional and not, of actors Kirsty Findlay and Bethany Tennick. Tucked away in the unadorned confines of Playhouse 46 (formerly St. Luke’s Theatre), and surrounded by audience members on all sides, Findlay and Tennick give lyrical voice to the musical two-hander’s plethora of land-bound and not-so-land-bound characters. The former fret about immediate concerns, like the economic allure of tourism leading to the death of what once made their island home special, while the latter come from the realm of pure fantasy with an ecological message about the earth that’s so softly delivered one could easily miss its far-sighted apocalyptic warning about climate change.
An import from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Islander embraces that renowned international jamboree’s artistry and experimentalism, most notably by forgoing musicians for sound looping machines operated by Findlay and Tennick themselves. Especially for the technophobic (cough, cough), it’s an extraordinary feat to witness actors become part of the production crew without the conceit ever feeling gimmicky or compromising the flow of the storytelling. That’s no doubt due mostly to Findlay and Tennick’s on-the-spot sound engineering abilities, which, to be sure, still take a backseat to their even more remarkable singing and acting.
Stewart Melton’s oddly effective naturalistic-cum-unnaturalistic book, and Draper’s confident direction, give Findlay and Tennick enough material and structural support to craft their islands’ worth of characters (yes, two islands, but no more about that in this review, lest secrets are spoiled) with a sense of definite personality boundaries, particularly for the show’s two major roles: Eilidh (Tennick) and Arran (Findlay). Seemingly closest in age to the actors, these teenaged characters are each overwhelmed by the typical adolescent bugaboo of believing the world is crumbling around them, the major difference being that their budding angst likely will be proven right.
Eilidh feels completely alone in a community severely depleted by the siren song of the mainland, which even has drawn her mother to its inviting shores. It’s what makes the sudden appearance on the island of the mysterious, and equally lonely, Arran so joyous for Eilidh, with the two actors affectingly portraying friendship as a shared lifeline. That Findlay is also able to effortlessly slip into, among others, the persona of Eilidh’s impish grandmother or Tennick can believably feign a character’s late-term pregnancy without any visual help suggests empathy far beyond Findlay and Tennick’s own years.
Finn Anderson’s complex score combines a deep respect for the reassuringly ancient with a similar appreciation for the bracingly new, blending the sounds of Scottish folk music with electronic rhythms that wouldn’t be out of place if heard on a dance floor. It also simultaneously feeds off and infuses Findlay and Tennick’s youthful energy, allowing them to harmonize in a way that essentially serves as a metaphor for the lovely bond that forms between Eilidh and Arran. Although, admittedly, you may give up attempting to decipher the lyrics because of the actors’ occasionally impenetrable Scottish brogues, that’s fine, since Findlay and Tennick’s pitch-perfect expressions carry all the meaning the audience needs to understand.
Islander: A New Musical (through June 13, 2022)
Playhouse 46 at St. Luke’s, 308 West 46th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.playhouse46.org
Running time: one hour and thirty minutes with no intermission