Step into a modern fairy tale with Islander, currently in production upstairs at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre. Set on the fictional Scottish island of Kinnan, the story follows teenage Eilidh, the youngest resident of the isle, who meets first a beached whale and then a mysterious girl on the shores of her homeland. This unique, intimate musical offers a spellbinding experience.
Kinnan is facing a kind of identity crisis in the modern era. Many islanders, including Eilidh’s mother, have left for the “big land” to find work. The residents are facing a vote on whether to stay or move to mainland Scotland, with tensions between those of differing opinions running high. Meanwhile, Eilidh meets a whale calf who teaches her a haunting melody before dying on the island’s shore. Shortly afterward, a strange girl, Arran, appears on the same shore, and the two girls become fast friends despite Arran’s seemingly impossible claims about her origins.
The colorful residents of the island are portrayed by just two performers; which two will depend on the specific performance, as two pairs of actors alternate dates. At my performance, Lois Craig and Julia Murray demonstrated incredible skill both as vocalists and actors. Their physicality and vocal choices make it easy to distinguish between a rotating cast of characters, each of whom is delightful in their own way. Eilidh’s prankster grandmother is a particular favorite, as she feigns her own death to hilarious effect. A heavily pregnant island resident is another highlight, scolding her “little monster” for kicking her insides, and a recurring joke about another resident’s missing garden gnome is highly amusing. The performers handle serious moments just as well as lighter ones, and Craig’s poignant display of grief in one scene resonates deeply.
The music in this show is breathtaking. The two performers make live recordings of sounds like clapping, breathing, or singing and loop the results to create everything from the haunting soundscape of the beach when the young whale is dying to the upbeat music at a midsummer dance. This unusual device might seem gimmicky in other hands, but here it feels as natural as the landscape of the island. Scenic design by Emma Bailey uses simple and elegant lines to evoke a wide variety of settings on a spare stage. Lighting design by Simon Wilkinson is brilliant, creating a host of looks that completely transform the setting and mood.
Lots of people were involved in creating this show and bringing it to Chicago. Originally conceived and directed by Amy Draper, this production includes associate direction by Eve Nicol. In addition, the play features a book by Stewart Melton and music and lyrics by Finn Anderson. This gorgeous musical is unlike anything I’ve seen before, and I highly recommend you check it out before its short run ends.
Location: Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 East Grand Avenue
Dates: November 29 – December 17, 2023
Tickets: Start at $65. For more information or to purchase tickets, contact the Box Office at 312.595.5600 or visit the Theater’s website.
All photos by Steve Tanner.