All hail Chicago Shakespeare’s World Stage series, a longstanding gem that brings international arts groups to this city, typically offering Chicagoans a window not just into concerns emanating from abroad but also priorities, feelings and beauty.
The pandemic nearly took down World Stage; COVID-19 caused years of disruption in international arts touring and the complex networks behind it are still in recovery mode.
So for all those reasons, “Islander,” a contemporary folk tale inspired by the music and sounds of Scotland, could not be more welcome. It’s a modest affair: no set, really, and no band. Just two cast members, both young women, perform the piece, live-looping their music, mostly vocal and percussive, to create a fuller sound.
“Islander” has been around for a while. As conceived by Amy Draper, penned by Stewart Melton and with music and lyrics by Finn Anderson, the show was seen at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland before the pandemic and had an off-Broadway run in 2022, although it struggled to find an audience in New York after opening in the usual April crush of new musicals, all of which were far more elaborate affairs. The touring show is a separate production, under the auspices of commercial producers and the Theatre Royal Plymouth, a cool British theater, albeit about as far from Scotland as you can get without swimming.
The show is set in the fictional Kinnan Island, a remote Scottish island facing depopulation as folks move to mainland Scotland. We meet Eilidh (Lois Craig), the last teenage girl on the island and a young person torn between her familial roots and the world beyond, the latter being especially tempting since there is also a government resettlement program of which she could take advantage. As you might expect, Eilidh spends a lot of time alone, singing into the sea, so to speak, which eventually spews forth a beached whale calf and a second girl, Arran (Julia Murray), of indeterminate geographic origin and potentially misty and mythic provenance.
The two performers play many other roles, including a marine biologist and Eilidh’s ancient Gran, from whom much of the show’s dark comedy flows, given the old woman’s love of tricking her granddaughter. There is music throughout, with the looping technology allowing the actresses to sing along with sounds they just have made. (Note that the show is double-cast, with Stephanie MacGaraidh and Sylvie Stenson appearing at some performances).
It’s a cool show, all in all, and one that easily keys into a wide swath of feelings about leaving (and remaining) home; it certainly had me going. How interesting you find the looping, with its requisite buttons for the performers to push, is very much a matter of opinion, I think. Porchlight Music Theatre in Chicago attempted something similar with a show called “Ernest Shackleton Loves Me,” and, in both cases, I’d say live musicians would have been my preference. That said, the thematic idea of loneliness and of singing mostly with your own self certainly is enhanced by the looping in “Islander.” I just found the pressing of buttons a distraction from the work of two very talented young performers who clearly live this material.
Chicago has a good number of fans of Celtic music and culture and of those who seek out intimate evenings of contemplative and sometimes contemporary sounds at venues like Mrs. Murphy’s pub. “Islander” certainly will appeal to that group; Anderson’s music doesn’t follow the traditional strictures of a musical score but it’s enigmatic, distinctive and, when performed from the heart as is the case here, rather beguiling.
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.
Review: “Islander” (3 stars)
When: Through Dec. 17
Where: Upstairs Theatre at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Tickets: $65-$75 at 312-595-5600 and chicagoshakes.com