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Review | A mystical musical blending Scottish folklore and climate change

“Islander” is a tale steeped in Scottish folklore, but it’s less about traditional myths and more about the myths we tell ourselves. A two-handed softie, it’s held together by a mystical strangeness and mystery that, cleverly, is never fully revealed.

Part of this magic is due to the live vocal loops (recording sound and playing back in real time) and electronic mixing effects that animate the fictional island of Kinnan, where a small population dwindles as those who search greater opportunities arise. the “Great Land”. The resulting sounds, created on stage, are eerie: a chilling whale song, the lapping of waves, and even a full folk band evoked via a cappella vocals all emphasize the rain-soaked island.

The only teenager left on Kinnan is Eilidh (played by the energetic Lois Craig), whose daily routine of solitary remote learning (no teachers remain on the island) is interrupted when she finds a dying calf on the shore . The next day, a young woman named Arran (Stephanie MacGaraidh) is washing the dishes. Her curious stories remind Eilidh of the surreal side of her home folklore – which once literally tensions split Kinnan into two islands, dividing the farmers, who stayed, and the fishermen, who moved to a mist-shrouded land to become whale farmers.

Like the two main As the characters’ friendship unfolds and parallel lives intertwine, the Scottish actresses arrange their golden voices into haunting, haunting harmonies that fill the main stage of the Olney Theater Center, with the help of sound designer Sam Kusnetz, with a blend of folk, pop and electro, further bridging the contemporary. and the traditional. It’s a signature of lyricist and musical director Finn Anderson, whose other works also deal with enchanting folklore.

Craig and MacGaraidh also play the townspeople, each representing around 10 characters in total., including a marine biologist, a retiree searching for his lost garden gnome, and Eilidh’s mischievous but aging grandmother. They have received an offer from the government to settle on the Scottish mainland and are meeting at a town hall (or a “spikkin”, as Eilidh’s grandmother reminds her to call it) to discuss whether to ‘accept the offer. Some, like Breagha, who is nine months pregnant, are torn between the desire to stay and the reality that the island is on the verge of extinction, with no doctors and one last struggling farm.

It would be easy for the constant switching of roles to become tedious or confusing, but Craig and MacGaraidh handle it with agile grace. (Because these roles are so demanding, Sylvie Stenson and Julia Murray take turns playing them.) It’s exciting to watch them jump between characters, shape their limbs, pitch or deepen their voices, take on scowls and sighs, with such dexterity, often between words.

“Islander” was conceived by Amy Draper circa 2017 and made a splash at the 2019 Edinburgh Fringe Festival before moving to an off-Broadway tour and eventually embarking on its current North American and European tour. Its most visible theme – the bitter struggle to maintain a sliver of home on a planet threatened by climate change – perhaps speaks more forcefully today than when the musical was originally developed. But in a smaller, more specific way, “Islander” is also about the small acts of care and kindness we show one another and about a whole-hearted belief in the power of community.

Which is why, when Eilidh and Arran break up, their bittersweet wish to reunite seems strangely hopeful. “If the whales still swim,” said Arran.

“If we’re still here,” Eilidh replies.

Islanderthrough April 28 at the Olney Theater Center in Olney, Maryland. 90 minutes, without intermission. olneytheatre.org.

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