Editor’s note: We sent two reviewers to a recent performance of Actors Theatre’s “Once on This Island.” The following review includes both of their perspectives on the performance.
Laura Morton: With the title of “Once on This Island,” one could gather that the play takes place…on an island. Walking into the Pamela Brown Auditorium at Actors Theatre of Louisville, you can understand why I found it a bit disconcerting to see a cinder block wall for the set. Before the show, I expected (and possibly hoped) that the obtrusive wall would make way for a beautiful island paradise to be revealed.
And then the show began.
Yes, it’s set on an island, but in a Red Cross storm shelter. The characters arrive to the shelter in the pre-show, finding refuge from a storm, making the best out of the cots and bottled water provided. The show begins and you see that it is these people, exhausted from the rain outside, frustrated by the conditions of the shelter, who tell the story of the history of their home, the Jewel of the Antilles, as a way to cope. And somehow, in this dank shelter, with stacked chairs and sandbags under the doors, this stunning island story comes to life.
Ben Gierhart: Indeed, “Once on This Island” takes the Loa spirits of Haitian folklore — beings who are similar but not entirely the same as Greek gods — and sets them in a “Romeo and Juliet”-like tale. In this show, there’s Asaka (Bre Jackson) who is the mother of the Earth, Agwe (Allan K. Washington) who is spirit of the water and storms, and Erzulie (Gisela Adisa) who is the spirit of love and the foil to Pape Ge (Soara Joye-Ross) who is a demon of death. The plot of the show centers on a bargain between Erzulie and Papa Ge over whether it is love or death that is more potent.
The spirits set their sights on Ti Moune (Lauren Chanel), a young peasant girl with big dreams. One night, assisting with Erzulie and Papa Ge’s bargain, Agwe conjures up a fierce storm that causes Daniel (Colin Carswell) — a member of the grands hommes, a caste of lighter-skinned people who live on the other side of the island and who are descendants of the original French settlers and their slaves — to be gravely injured in a car crash.
Ti Moune discovers him, falls in love with him at first sight and after a visit from Papa Ge, offers her soul in exchange for Daniel’s life. When Daniel wakes, their love for each other blooms into a relationship that matches the grandest tragic romance. There is the typical protestation from both young people’s families, but they remain steadfastly devoted to each other. When Ti Moune learns that Daniel cannot marry her due to a prearranged marriage, Papa Ge visits the despondent girl again to give her the opportunity to take the original offer, i.e. to leave Daniel dead. It’s probably easy to guess what Ti Moune chooses, but so much of what’s great about this show is how it takes the familiar and subverts it just enough to surprise while still delivering a satisfying payoff. It’s better not to know how this show ends going in.
LM: There’s a stunning undercurrent to the production, that even though these storytellers captivate each other, it is never lost that they are also people who are desperate to survive a storm, who don’t know if their homes will still be standing, and who are stuck in the shelter until the skies clear. And this can only be attributed to the talented direction of Robert Barry Fleming, Actors Theatre’s new executive artistic director. Good theater transports an audience into another place or time, and this production transports the audience to where people are at their most vulnerable, where strangers of all walks of life gather to survive. It transports them to a world of legend with bird sounds and gods and trees in which to hide. It is absolutely magical.
BG: If there’s any complaint to be made, it’s that sound appeared to be an issue at the performance this reviewer attended. The occasional mic crackle and hit-and-miss sound quality of the band is a disservice to the obviously prodigiously talented actors and live musicians. Sound is notoriously difficult, especially with a musical, for any theater company or production. It’s easy to forgive, but it was noticeable.
LM: The cast is small, but exquisitely talented. They fill the space with song, but are still able to connect in quiet, emotional moments. The foundation of the entire production, though, resides in the power of the four gods. They carry the weight of telling the tale with phenomenal voices and beautiful depth. There’s a moment when Soara-Joye Ross as Papa Ge experiences heartbreak. It’s quick and subtle, and yet I doubt you could find anyone watching who wasn’t touched. And Gisela Adisa as Erzulie, the Goddess of Love, has a watchful eye and absolutely emanates both strength and tenderness.
BG: Scenic Designer Jason Ardizzone-West’s set is beautiful, with walls adorned with a mélange of symbols of Haitian folklore and quotes from Christian precepts like the Beatitudes that transport the audience members into a culture where both ideologies coexist and thrive. And some of the most exciting aspects of this production come from moments when the set transforms in unexpected ways, simultaneously creating a living, breathing island setting and giving massive payoff to the more fantastical elements of the story. Not enough can be said on how much of a technical achievement this set is.
LM: The cinder block walls, scaffolding, costs and stacked chairs of Ardizzone-West’s set provide a cold, stifling atmosphere, which is why it’s so shocking when you can suddenly feel the heat of the Caribbean sun, helped along by an amazing lighting design by Alan C. Edwards.
BG: Costume Designer Lex Liang really took the concept and ran with it, especially with the costumes for the Loa spirits. Agwe’s crown of Dasani bottles evokes Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods,” and Papa Ge’s costume is the stuff of nightmares and underscores a powerhouse performance from Ross.
LM: In Liang’s design, water bottles make a crown, a tattered umbrella becomes torn wings, a basket a helmet, and the front cage of an oscillating fan makes for a halo-like headdress. The entire production has a seamlessness to it, and all the designers beautifully complement each other.
BG: “Once on This Island” is a sort of a forgotten gem from early 1990s Broadway that has been given a much-deserved second chance thanks to the wildly inventive 2017 revival. This production marks the first directorial effort for Fleming. It’s a great choice for the first show in the job as Fleming appears to have taken the spirit of that revival to heart. If this production is indicative of anything, it’s that Louisville has a future full of bold storytelling ahead.
LM: This is an absolutely stunning production. It’s grand and surprising, precise in its intent, and has the ability to immediately capture the audience. It is Fleming’s directorial debut at Actors Theatre, and I don’t think there could be a better way for him to introduce himself to Louisville. We can all rest assured that Actors Theatre is in great hands.
“Once on This Island” runs through February 23 at Actors Theatre of Louisville. For ticket information, please visit actorstheatre.org.