“Once On This Island” struggles to stay above water

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YooRa Kang, Ricardo Pequenino, Alexandra Quispe, and Sari Rofosky in Fabulist Theatre’s “Once On This Island”.

Well, the singing is nice.

Other than that, there’s unfortunately not a whole lot to praise about Fabulist Theatre’s production of Once On This Island, directed by Damon Bradley Jang. The cast is energetic enough (comprised of mostly youth performers), but every performer has to struggle to find room on a very crowded stage. Add to that a number of technical problems in both design and execution, as well as several strange choices in regards to staging, and one is left with a show that seems constantly on the verge of collapse.

Granville Island’s Revue Stage is not a huge space, but it’s made even smaller by a divisive set, that separates the playing space in two: a raised platform upstage, and an open area ringed by greenery downstage. When the 15-person cast is all onstage together, dancing alongside several unnecessarily large set pieces, traffic issues are unavoidable. Occasionally, the expressive choreography (Marion Landers) shines, but too frequently, scenes are swallowed by the sheer overabundance of things. It’s as if no one is allowed to leave the stage, ever; every intimate moment becomes an ensemble number.

It’s a shame, because there actually is a lot of talent onstage. YooRa Kang and Ricardo Pequenino are suitably powerful as the gods of Earth and Water-Pequenino’s performance of “Rain” was particularly rousing- and as Little Ti Moune, Arta Negahban is delightfully fun to watch.


Brianna Clark sings “Forever Yours”.

In terms of doing justice to the beautiful songs (written by Stephen Flaherty), no performer does better work than Brianna Clark as the lovesick young heroine, Ti Moune. Clark’s voice is nothing short of fantastic, and her acting chops are nothing to disparage either. She is singularly the most invested actor onstage, and more than outshines the older, more experienced artists with which she shares the stage.

However, the value of these young performers is undermined by everything else they’re fighting against: cramped blocking, cumbersome set pieces, and some of the most incomprehensible lighting I’ve ever seen. It’s a young company, it’s a community show, mistakes will be made…but there is no excuse for scene after scene being under-lit to the point where the plastic shrubbery is given more illumination than the actors’ faces.

Equally unforgivable is the overuse of set changes, seen most egregiously in a pair of over-large iron gates that are carted on and off several times during the show, and serve no real purpose other than to provide yet another obstacle for the poor performers to bump into. These changes occur often midway through a scene, which leads to a number of awkward and distracting transitions. You know something’s amiss when actors  have to shuffle downstage mid-sentence, to avoid being clobbered by the moving set.

Sometimes, a show’s faults can be forgiven if there is a pressing need to tell the story. But, as fairy-tales go, this one is pretty predictable, and any deviations (such as an extremely unsympathetic male love interest) do more to hinder audience engagement, rather than help it. The show quickly becomes a wash of movement, with occasional moments of beautiful singing. Most of the cast is giving their all, but it’s not nearly enough. Underneath the distractions, there is a decent show trying to emerge, but Once On This Island is ultimately too clumsy and busy to allow that to happen.

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