Once on this Island
ASSOCIATE ARTS EDITOR
Co-Directed by: Seth Bisen-Hersh ’01 and Sara Jo Elice ’01
Featuring: Sara Jo Elice ’01, Beth Siers ’95, Seth Bisen-Hersh ’01, Rebecca Lipon ’03, and Corey Gerritsen ’02.
April 14-15, 2000
Musicals, like most works of art, fall into several categories with regard to their purpose. Some have no morals and simply serve to entertain. It is easy to spot these shows because any attempt to derive a moral from them will only produce ludicrous results such as “Don’t feed the plant” and “Don’t tick off the psycho guy who lives in the basement of the old opera house.” On the other end of the spectrum are shows which, like uptight stockbrokers, have a large, complicated web of stringent morals such that any attempt to encapsulate all of them in one sentence would lead to a confusing, grammatically incorrect mess.
And then there are shows like Once on this Island which, like small children, have simple morals which can oftentimes be summarized in a single sentence, such as, “Don’t pretend to be a prince of Arabia when you’re really only a street rat”. Like the classic musical West Side Story, Once on this Island is a story in which characters defy boundaries of race and class, but where West Side Story is gritty and suspenseful, Island is merely passive and pastel.
Island is presented in the style of a folk tale, and as such it features characters who are two-dimensional at best and one-dimentionsal at worst and who act in easily predictable ways. Only a director of such high caliber and experience as Graciele Daniele, the original director of the show on Broadway, can make such an essentially fluffy show a moving experience. However, this is not to imply that a non-moving experience can’t be worthwhile and highly entertaining. Indeed, the production of Once on this Island, co-directed by Seth Bisen Hersh ’01 and Sara Jo Elice ’01, was an impressive piece of work within the limiting confines of the largely uninteresting show.
The production of Island was not overly ambitious or experimental, but the co-directors made effective use of their space and resources. The costuming, although simple, showed creativity. Although the original cast called for Caucasians and those of African descent, the distinction was achieved through black and white clothing. In addition, the four gods among the players were distinguished from the mortals by a colored costume which complemented their demesne. The lighting was adequate although at times, such as the beginning in which the stage consisted solely of red lighting for far too long, it seemed illogical. The staging was done well, with the exception of the problem that only members of the audience sitting in the first three rows could see characters sitting or lying on the floor. Also, the pacing was excellent, as was the orchestra, lead by David Foxe ’03.
But by far the most notable element of the production was the strong cast which filled the show with energy. The show, although fairly short at close to ninety minutes, is through-sung with music spread out over a large number of characters. In general the men in the cast acted well in their mostly dispensible roles, although they tended to succumb to the confines of their wooden roles instead of fleshing them out. Sara Jo Elise sang strongly in her limited role of Ti Moune, the young lower-class native girl who loves an upper-class mulatto boy, although one wishes that the role consisted of more than just, “I love you so much” and “Why don’t you love me?”
Beth Siers ’95 excelled as Ti Moune’s mother as well as in the last-minute casting adjustment role of Asaka, the Goddess of the Earth. It is in the latter role that Siers truly shone, most particularly in the song “Mama Will Provide,” one of the definite highlights of the show. Seth Bisen-Hersh sensitively integrated himself into the show’s texture and gave a fine, understated performance as Papa Ge, the God of Death.
The surprise find of the evening, however, was Rebecca Lipon ’03 who gave a stunning performance as Erzulie, the Goddess of Love. Lipon explored every emotion of her character, which ranged from moods as varied as teasing, sympathetic, and angry, all expressed with the poise of a goddess. Her movement and her singing were perfectly natural, yet controlled, although it will be interesting to see how she acts in future productions which will call more upon her acting and singing ability. Lipon is definitely an actress to watch for in the future.
Once on this Island was an admirable show, made all the more impressive by its independent production. It rivaled the Musical Theater Guild in terms of its high-quality cast, intelligent staging, and exceptional orchestra. Although the choice of play limited the experience, it did produce an evening of entertaining musical theater.