HERE on the Island
Review by Sean McQuaid
Prince Edward Island doesn't have that many enduring theatrical shows. There's the Charlottetown Festival's Anne of Green Gables, of course-and for the better part of a decade, there was her twisted doppelganger, Annekenstein, courtesy of the late, lamented Off Stage Theatre; but apart from Lucy Maud Montgomery derivatives, few Island theatre entities can rival the endurance of the one-man institution known as David Weale.
A respected author, educator and broadcaster with a penchant for Prince Edward Island history, culture and folklore, Weale has been parlaying his unique Island knowledge and his celebrated storytelling skills into assorted stage shows for much of the past decade or so-first with the long-running A Long Way From The Road (which paired him with fiddler Roy Johnstone and other musicians), and more recently with his one-man show Greenmount Boy. This summer, Weale joins forces with traditional singer-songwriter Allan Rankin (who had previously teamed with Johnstone and storyteller Frank Ledwell as Crowbush) and musicians Brad Fremlin & Perry Williams to perform Here on the Island: A Harvest of Stories and Songs.
Weale and Rankin both remain masters of their respective crafts, and Fremlin & Williams provide solid musical accompaniment (Fremlin in particular stands out with his eerie saw-playing and his gently pervasive keyboards, though Williams plays a mean mandolin); however, this arrangement has some inherent drawbacks.
For one thing, long-term fans of this kind of show may find it all a bit familiar-some of the featured material has been used before in similar shows by Weale or Rankin.
Also, this particular reviewer has never quite shaken his preference for a more no-frills take on Weale, who often seems most effective as an intimate, unaccompanied storyteller, or as a storyteller accompanied by a lone, complementary instrumentalist whose playing blends naturally into Weale's material. The Weale-Johnstone collaboration was probably the most successful version of the latter approach, though there are moments in Here on the Island where Weale's words and, say, Fremlin's piano form a seamless whole. More often than not, though, Here on the Island has something of a choppy, stop-and-start feel to it. A story, then a song, then a story, then a song...
Of course, they're memorably entertaining stories and songs (which is the important part), and they do a nice job of capturing various aspects and oddities of the place we call the Island. This show also distinguishes itself from past efforts with some well-chosen multimedia material. For instance, the production opens with a fun black & white film short featuring the performers in the style of an old-time silent movie. During the main show, a projection screen behind the performers displays vintage photographs, some of which serve as evocative backdrops for the words and music, some of which encourage audience participation by having Weale challenge viewers to identify assorted pictorial subjects from the old days. This particular mixture of old and new seems to work, complementing the efforts of Weale, Rankin and friends rather than distracting from them or further compartmentalizing the proceedings. The result is a pleasant combination of novelty and nostalgia.