King Island Christmas, libretto by Deborah Brevoort, music by David Friedman, based on the book by Jean Rogers. Directed by Patricia Birch.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Celebrating The Oomiak (David Girard, top); photo: Tim Raab, Northern Photo
Sam Stuto and Shannon Johnson; photo: Tim Raab
"The chances that trouble gives you..."
A. There are miracles. B. There is community. Add them together and you get the reality of theater, particularly resident theater where the companyís core group stays the same and the family aspect expands as needed. For the New York State Theatre Institute known as NYSTI, in its 34th year as a community and family nothing seems clearer than the need to make a miracle. The fact that this company often produces family-friendly shows combined with the fact that this particular show, King Island Christmas, is based on a childrenís book combined with the family/community aspect of this company and the way they work makes the miracle happen.
In one hour and five minutes a through-composed - which means the music never stops - show with 49 people on stage tugs at even the most hardened hearts and releases from the mind the cares of the everyday world. King Island Christmas, set on an island in the Bering Strait off the coast of Alaska, is about to be frozen in for the winter, abandoned by the larger world until the spring thaw in April and May. The islandís few residents, mostly Inupiag Eskimos with an oral history tradition, are anticipating the supply ship, North Star, which will deliver supplies and the visiting priest to light the holiday candles. The ship, though it arrives on time, is threatened by encroaching ice and the small boat, the Oomiak, cannot get to it. The islanders perform a daunting challenge and they carry the heavy, walrus-hide boat over the high peak that forms the center of the island to a leeward bay where the ice wonít form and the ship is able to meet them and provide them with their long winterís needs.
While that is the story, there is so much more to discover in the short time it takes to retell this legend. Donít think you know it all because Iíve told you what Iíve told you. There are ideas here, philosophies, a religion based less on religion than on the belief that the world will return the light, for above the arctic circle there is very little light except for the miracle lights.
"The miracle of light" they sing, "light the candle..." and Father Carroll, the visiting priest tells us "I came up here to teach of love, but Iím the one whoís taught." The characters are so well drawn, and so well played by a company that astonishes with their talent, that from the minute the villagers set out on their Noh Play-like journey, willing to sacrifice for one another, to the final blackout, there is nothing but high emotion, love and tears of empathy and joy.
Playing the boat itself, The Oomiak, is the very talented, and hopefully lightweight, David Girard. He has been good before but never better than he is here. In the narratorís role is Paul Carter who sings with joy and pathos and gets us believing long before we need to believe that we are witnessing an event, and not a play. Sam Stuto plays Little Eir whose role in this show is most essential. He is the harbinger of arrivals, of hard work, and of love. His mother is played beautifully by Shannon Johnson who sing "The Gift of Trouble" magnificently.
John Romeo has rarely been better or more sympathetic than as the Storyteller, singing and mesmerizing as he goes. David Tass Rodriguez is a joy as Father Carroll, tall, strong, almost magnificent in his resolve to do his best for these people reminding them that beauty abound in the long dark winter as the northern lights remind them of both redemption and resurrection.
Others in the cast who do their absolute best work (watch their faces when theyíre not singing - the involvement is so real itís heartbreaking) include Carole Edie Smith, Heather Bee Chestnut, Ron Komora and every one of the village children.
Director Patricia Birch has worked her rhythmic magic on this show. Her choreography is simultaneously unreal because it is synchronized movement and far too real for the same reason. There is a naturalness to every step, including the descent from the mountain as the villagers return the Oomiak to the shore and usefulness. Birch has guided each actor into playing a realistic character and kept the people and the proceedings as real as real can be.
"On the Mountain Top; photo: Tim Raab
On a frighteningly open set consisting of platforms, staircases, ladders and ramps, designed by Eugene Lee, dressed in appropriately warm and bulky costumes by Robert Anton the company moves through the single day of the play under warm yet chilling light created for them by Kirk Bookman.
Michael Musial conducts and plays the show beautifully with the aid of Barbara Musial on keyboards and Mark Foster at the drums and percussion. The sparseness of the orchestration works to great effect in this piece, keeping us aware of the cold weather contained in the music these people feel in their hearts.
The miracle is at hand, a holiday present in Troy accessible to anyone who can get to the theater and spend the top price of $20, cheap for a miracle, and perhaps a miracle in itself. Christian, Jew, Muslim or Atheist or any other religion for that matter - it wonít matter that this show centers around a priest and a church and Christmas. Itís really a play about a miracle, about a festival of light and about a group of people who find that love answers their needs in all matters. Think about that. Thatís a miracle.
King Island Christmas plays at NYSTIís theater in the Schacht Fine Arts Center at Russell Sage College in Troy, NY through December 18. They have an unusual schedule so call them for availability and tickets at 518-274-3256 or go to their website at www.nysti.org.