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Worth the Drive

Here on the Island

Review by Patrick Ledwell

I was almost late for the performance of "Here on the Island" at the Jubilee Theatre in Summerside. Rather than taking the shorter, inland Route 2 on the drive out (as good reason and time permitting would dictate), I found myself putting on a turn signal for the meandering road that outlines the South Shore's red-cliffed coves.

The decision turned out to be a fitting one. "Here on the Island" is an enchanting weave of stories, songs, and memories that expresses the Island's unique character by going 'out chasing the shore,' to borrow a phrase from the show. Like a shoreline, which is a threshold between land and sea, the show searches out Island-ness not as a single thing, but in the places where themes from our traditions, work, and beliefs converge and overlap.

David Weale, Alan Rankin, Perry Williams, and Brad Fremlin are the right ensemble for this cartography of the Island's heart, as each of these talented performers can introduce narrative strands that the others then transform and carry forward. Weale's story-telling and Rankin's songs seamlessly finish thoughts for one another, and both are at the height of their craft here. When Weale conjures images of ferry-bound habits of mind, so hard to break that we still speed toward the bridge, you can see the audience collectively laugh and nod in assent, like a shared act of faith. And then Rankin sings the soaring "Northumberland Pride," a hymn to the ferry service and our mingled sadness and doubt about joining places with deep straits between.

The consummate artistry of Perry Williams and Brad Fremlin undergirds the show throughout. In addition to his skill with every stringed instrument, Williams has fashioned old Island photographs into an evocative slide show that frames the performance, like a projected memory. The audience sees richly-detailed pictures such as crowds standing at the rail of the ferry, squinting in the sun; we feel such a connection across historical distance that we can hardly help but squint back. Fremlin subtly adds texture to songs with an old pump organ and accordian, and has composed soundscapes so real they practically leave you with the smell of saltwater and timothy.

Even if you've heard an anecdote or a song before, the delicate orchestration of theme in "Here on the Island" offers an opportunity to see the material in a new light, like squares on a quilt positioned so that their patterns align. The substantial new chapters developed for this second run of "Here on the Island" are testament to the alchemy between the performers, as these movements are the show's strongest. A rhapsody on Island horses layers a film projection of their graceful running with Weale's stories about trusted workmates. A creative imagining of the Yankee Gale of 1851, which swells to a crescendo with Rankin's song "Gloucesterman," lets us follow the mournful search of a heart-broken sea captain, who travels to the Island in search of the four sons he lost.

The refrain that echoes strongest throughout is that Islanders and visitors alike need to "Take a little time/ Take the shore road." The show succeeds in getting the audience unstuck from the hectic present and casts us into a reflection on a gentler age, where even clocks stopped out of respect when someone died and the ferry trip was longer than the mainland stay. Inviting us 'in close' to see this place, "Here on the Island" offers a gift of time, an evening where we can celebrate and remember the stories that knit us together in a cultural fabric. And like a winding seaside path, the show rewards us for our looking.

Fodder of Comedy

Tourist Trap

Review by Patrick Ledwell

The main question in my mind before seeing Lorne Elliott's "Tourist Trap" at Victoria Playhouse was how well his comedy would survive the loss of its main weapon: Elliott himself. In his live shows and popular radio series, he marches himself into service as his own comedic cannon-fodder. The persona is a floppy-haired genius of misfortune, able to locate (and hyperbolically express) disaster from the most mundane of activities.

The plot of "The Tourist Trap" certainly recaptures this maladroit-in-distress sensibility, where the main character is more schemed against than scheming. The two-person play is set on Prince Edward Island, where the ne'er-do-well Bruno MacIntyre (Darren Keay) is maneuvering to rent out his father's ramshackle, swampfront cabin to unsuspecting visitors. Through a set of phone conversations, his meddlesome Aunt Tillie (Laurel Smyth) condemns the general disrepair of both the cabin and Bruno's character. Storm clouds begin to gather around the scheme when July bookings (and numerous wires) get crossed, leading to the coincidental check-in of a priggish ex-Islander and his tempestuous, sex-starved ex-wife (both present only in phone calls, voiced by Smyth).

In the play's opening monologue, Bruno delivers a standup gloss on Island real-estate adjectives, suggesting just how close to 'nowhere' properties called 'rural' and 'private' actually are. While the jokes work in rolling the audience toward the aisles, they do suggest the risk of the play becoming an exercise in I-Can't-Believe-It's-Not-Lorne. Sometimes, Keay's quicksilver comic ability makes him a hilarious doppelganger for his director, especially in a certain stiff-legged, flaccid-armed gait, like a reluctant marriage between various items from a broom closet.

But both Keay as performer, and Elliott as writer/director, have amusements more satisfying than mimicry here. While Keay doesn't have Elliott's mug, bioengineered for registering gripes with the universe, he has a true gift for physical comedy, and he uses his body unreservedly in railing against his circumstances. His reenactment of getting his head knocked about, while simultaneously recounting the motives for its being knocked, has all the unbridled energy and lunatic fringe of an early Jim Carrey. His pantomimed retelling of an amourous encounter, meant to unnerve his aunt over speakerphone, is bound to leave theatergoers with an expanded definition of what phone sex means.

Keay's physical performance is even more impressive considering that the entire play is conducted as a set of phone calls to and from him. The phone is an unlikely vehicle for theatre, as it ties up hands and doesn't allow the faces of both conversants to be seen. But both performers make a virtue of these necessities. Laurel Smyth exploits her off-stage presence to transmute into three different characters, shifting voices from an indignant anglophile to a stream-of-consciousness divorcee without missing a beat. But she is at her sharpest as the tart-tongued Aunt Tillie, capturing that peculiar Island talent for cutting someone to ribbons before they know they're bleeding. Her phone repartees with Bruno, where he can neither stand to listen or hang up, are infused with the theme that family is not just a word, but a sentence.

By the climax of the performance, when Bruno spins his yarn about trying to escape through a narrow floorboard, and Tillie suggests that he might as well charge for hearing it 'because people are laughing at him anyway,' we're not looking for Elliott the character anywhere. He has left the stage (if not the building) for the director's chair, and from there, he gives the performers the latitude to play new variations on his comic themes. "Tourist Trap" is artfully constructed and survives the trip to stage in full trim: we're still laughing at him anyway.

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