By Quinn Rigg
The human need to connect is pervasive and intrinsic. We are social animals that require meaningful contact as a means of maintaining wellbeing. As such, it needs no repeating that reality seems to dissolve day by day as we observe the tangible consequences of prolonged isolation. A desire to run back to an elusive “normal” gnaws peskily at our ankles. In the middle of unprecedented change, we must look outward and inward to see at once how to change ourselves and each other. With and without others beside us, for better and for worse, “no man is an island.” Enter Sam Carner and Derek Gregor’s Island Song to remind streaming audiences that change is the only constant.
Produced by 4 Chairs Theatre and directed by Lauren Berman, this remote production follows five urbanites seeking purpose and belonging in a chaotic world. Distinctively set to the backdrop of New York City, we are shown the grit, the comfort, the struggle and the hilarity of lives lived without brakes coming to the same destination in the city that never sleeps. Loosely interconnected stories of Will, (Nick Arceo) Jordan, (Aalon Smith) Caroline, (Kaitlin Feely) Shoshana, (Jasmine Lacy Young) and Cooper (JoJo Farrell) see the bloom and decay of relationships, the outset of careers, and most importantly, a clarity of purpose born in the anonymous sea of urban passersby.
Rife with heart, affectionately crafted vignettes, and class-act vocal performances, 4 Chairs Theatre does well to engage in its actors’ sense of play even in the trickiest of remote circumstances. What’s more, this production is unafraid to push the envelope in developing a visual language for non equity theatre in a cinematic idiom.
That being said, the remote reinvention of this genre is still in its adolescence. 4 Chairs Theatre is bold in its experimentation with the streamed format, employing stock footage, B-roll footage, and stock images to accompany and enhance the performances on screen; as such, this production faces a learning curve in the implementation of videography and editing elements with material that was designed for the stage — to be performed in person.
Challenges are tackled with ambitious moxie by director Lauren Berman, technical director Fil Graniczny, graphic designer Maxwell Rubinstein, and music director Kailey Rockwell. Scenic images set the time and place with more effectiveness than even a projector would under normal onstage circumstances. Subtext is elevated by music overlaying domestic montages of actors on the day-to-day. This bears promise for what is possible in this filmed format.
While such play with the format brings opportunity, so too does it bring complication. Due to the limitations presented by the pandemic, certain scenes are noticeably empty: Will sings to his partner in bed, one half of the screen cut off; Cooper and Caroline sit on a bench “together” reacting to their other that isn’t there… Given that the material is in constant reference to the cacophony of people littering the city, it’s difficult to look past the lonely emptiness present in each shot. While it is outside of anyone’s control, the contemporary material is in palpable disagreement with the given circumstances of our society’s current limitations in socialization and stagecraft.
Further still, the presence of Chicago’s distinctive public transit system and iconic architecture in many outdoor scenes creates cognitive dissonance within Island Song’s New York-specific themes and descriptions. Disconnects with the material continue with disparate jump cuts in the middle of dialogue, creating a jarring, disjointed effect on the visual coherence within this medium.
Regardless, the creative solutions to pandemic related restrictions are evident throughout this spunky production. With time and experimentation, 4 Chairs Theatre is sure to perfect an affordable, accessible means of creating filmed theatre for the non equity circuit.
The individual vocal facility of this cast is a certain highlight of this streaming experience. Kaitlin Feely sings with a remarkable clarity of tone, Nick Arceo asserts mastery over his wide range, Aalon Smith resonates with sultry warmth, Jasmine Lacy Young performs with magnetic charm, and JoJo Farrell is endearingly sweet. Music direction from Kailey Rockwell unwaveringly steps up to the challenge of cohesively unifying band and voice in isolation from one another.
As we all adjust to necessary institutional upheaval, a new form of theatre is coming into focus: one that can be more inclusive and accessible. The online streaming of remotely filmed shows has the potential to captivate a wider audience with less risk to health and safety than ever before. 4 Chairs Theatre’s Island Song gives a glimmering peek into what is possible with this new format, all the while affirming that the journey may never be perfect, but we are never alone between outset and arrival. Embracing the changes from point “A” to point “B” is how we move forward with a future that drags us along — whether we are ready or not.
4 Chairs Theatre presents Island Song through May 2nd, streaming On Demand. Tickets and more information may be found here.