SpeakEasy’s ‘Once on This Island’ Is A Magical Tour of A Mystical Place

Peli Naomi Woods, Kenny Lee, and the cast of SpeakEasy Stage’s Once on This Island (2022). Photos by Nile Scott Studios.

by Shelley A. Sackett

‘Once On This Island’ is such a happy, toe-tapping, brightly colored musical, it’s easy to forget that its overarching tragic themes are Caribbean colonialism, racism, and slavery. Part ‘Romeo and Juliet’ (which didn’t end well for those star-crossed lovers, either), part Little Mermaid and part multi-cultural folk fable, the show explains the history of the Island Hispaniola and its eventual split into Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Yet, the show is not heavy. There is also a contagious high-spirited cheerfulness that amounts to one of the most enjoyable theatrical experiences of 2022 (and there has been some stiff competition). Erik D. Diaz’s set is eye candy. Pink tiles, a shimmering crescent moon, lush vegetation and outdoor patio dining evoke the laid back magical vibe of island living.

Malik Mitchell, Peli Naomi Woods, Davron S. Monroe, Christina Jones, and Yewande Odetoyinbo

Under the direction of the talented David Freeman Coleman, live calypso music has the audience smiling and seat dancing before the play begins. The cast slowly moseys onto the stage, dressed in bright island finery. They engage and joke with audience members and each other, bantering in clear, easy to eavesdrop patois. The scene is set and the audience is primed.

Then suddenly, the horseshoe shaped stage is on fire, a burst of simultaneous music, song and dance. While there are a dozen individuals who are a “who’s who” of Boston’s finest actors/singers/dancers, in the prologue number, “We Dance,” they are a single, well-oiled ensemble. Voices blend seamlessly in strong, crisp and tuneful harmony. Jazelynn Goudy’s choreography is exciting and even more eye candy. There is so much to absorb sensorially, it’s hard to take it all in.

And that’s before the outstanding Peli Naomi Woods (Ti Moune) explodes onto the stage, commanding its center with confidence and grace while demonstrating her formidable vocal and dancing prowess.

Davron S. Monroe

The overlapping stories of Ti Moun and Haiti (referred to as “the jewel of the Antilles”) unfolds for the next 90 intermission-less minutes as an operetta, (a form of theatrical light opera) that includes spoken dialogue, songs, and dances. Told as a Hans Christian Anderson type of fairy tale fable, we learn about the history of the island and the caste system that divides people according to skin color, origin and wealth. The Beauxhommes, descendants of European colonialists, have the money, the power and the land. The native islanders are poor and stuck in their station. There is no possibility of fraternization, let alone marriage, between the two. Their futures are indelibly tracked.

Still, they all serve the caprices of the local gods, praying to them, fearing them and dancing to their music.

Through Lynn Ahrens (book and lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty’s (music) magnificent libretto, we learn Ti Moun’s story. It all starts with a big storm that left her an orphan. The gods spared her life for a purpose; they chose her for a magical adventure.

She is cared for by Ton-Ton Julian and Mama Euralie and grows up into the magnificent Woods. All is fine until Daniel, son of a wealthy Beauxhomme landowner, catches her eye as he races through her village in a splashy sports car. She becomes convinced they are each other’s destiny. She is determined to find a way for them to be together.

Peli Naomi Woods, Reagan Massó

One day, Daniel crashes his car and Ti Moun finds him. She decides the gods orchestrated this, revealing their plan for her and the reason she survived the storm. She goes into hiding with him, resolved to nurse him back to health. Papa Ge, the Demon of Death, comes to claim him, and Ti Mouns makes a bargain: her life for Daniel’s, payable at Papa Ge’s whim.

Ti Moun believes that love’s force can overcome all, even a bargain with the death god. Like Romeo and Juliet, these two really do love each other but, notwithstanding Ti Moun’s faith, no love is strong enough to overpower social and political mores.

To call “Once on This Island” enjoyable is like saying the Taj Mahal is a nice space. This production sparkles on every level. The musicians are first class. The choreography is inventive and inspired. In one knock-out number, Goudy arms the dancers with silver, shimmering umbrellas. The effect is otherworldly — are they jellyfish? Protective kites? Homage to Alvin Ailey’s “Revelations?” Or are they just there because it’s raining?

It’s hard to know where to begin to give shout outs among the cast. Woods (Ti Moun) is an undergraduate senior at Boston Conservatory at Berklee with a bright future that we hope will remain in Boston — at least for a little while. Anthony Pires, Jr. (Ton-Ton Julian) brings a lithe physicality, knock ‘em dead pipes and an irresistible twinkle in his eye to his role. Christina Jones (Erzulie) possesses a quiet substance and the voice of angel. And Becky Bass  (Steel Pannist and narrator/storyteller) is fresh, nuanced and natural. Her facial expressions and body language are magnetic. Kenny Lee, who plays the pivotal role of Daniel, could use a little more seasoning, but that’s something that additional stage time should cure.

Don’t miss this balm of a show. It is a four course, five star theatrical feast.

Once On This Island.” Book and Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens. Music by Stephen Flaherty. Directed by Pascale Forestal. Music Direction by David Freeman Coleman; Choreography by Jazelynn Goudy; Scenic Design by Erik D. Diaz; Costume Design by Chelsea Kerl; Lighting Design by Aja M. Jackson; Sound Design by Andrew Duncan Will. Presented by Speakeasy Stage, Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA through April 16.

For more information and tickets, go to: https://www.speakeasystage.com/

Make SpeakEasy Stage’s Impeccable ‘The Sound Inside’ Your First Stop for In-Person Theater

Jennifer Rohn and Nathan Malin in ‘The Sound Inside’ All photos by Nile Scott Studios

By Shelley A. Sackett

If your Covid Comfort Zone now includes attending indoor events, gallop on over to SpeakEasy Stage’s production of Adam Rapp’s The Sound Inside, a trifecta of what makes for exalted theater: flawless script, acting and directing. This two-hander doesn’t just hit a home run over the green wall; it launches it into outer space.

That said, it still takes a leap of faith to believe that it is safe to be packed together as tightly as a fully booked economy cabin as long as everyone is fully vaccinated and masked. It took me several minutes before my anxiety leveled off and I could be entirely present for the play.

And what an extraordinary play it is.

In a nutshell, Rapp has written a 90-minute intermission-less drama about two writers: Bella Baird (Jennifer Rohn), a 53-year-old Yale professor of creative writing who has just been diagnosed with stage 2 cancer, and Christopher Dunn (Nathan Mailin), her student who marches to a different drummer than his peers.

Through their intellectually intimate and intricate conversations, we glimpse the moving targets of their lives’ stories and the fictional lives each has woven as cover and cover up. We also glimpse their pain, isolation, loneliness and pessimism. They are as different as night and day, as similar as two peas in a pod.

There emerges an undercurrent of dormant dread and tension underlying their relationship., but also the hint of potential relief and comfort. Their hyper-articulate, erudite dialogue takes them on a roller coaster ride, sometimes igniting storage bins of disillusion and defeat. Other times, their conversations are the magical balm that soothes their aching souls. Rapp keeps us guessing whether grief or solace lurks around every encounter, as thoroughly engaging and enjoyable as good page turner.

Jennifer Rohan in ‘The Sound Inside’

Under Devorah Kengmana’s brilliant lighting design, the play opens in darkness. A spotlighted Bella emerges and begins to address the audience. As if workshopping a novel, she describes her experiences, thoughts, and disappointments. She is scathing and dispassionate, especially when critiquing herself, the author of two novellas and “an under-appreciated novel written in my late thirties that, despite some flattering reviews and a mention or two on a handful of year-end lists, is struggling to stay alive.” She is also not above petty jealousy. Although she adores James Salter’s “Light Years,” rereading it every year, she refuses to teach it because “it is a rare work of fiction that continues to reveal new things with each reading…It’s so good it enrages me.”

The set (by Cristina Todesco) is sparse, dark and efficient, a single table and two chairs. When Bella addresses the audience from the table and the lighting shifts, we are transported to her office. Christopher arrives without an appointment (for which she admonishes him, but doesn’t send him away). He speaks to Bella and she speaks both directly to him and to the audience in frequent pithy asides. Alternating who gets to play narrator is a device Rapp employs to great effect throughout the play.

Christopher is a Yale misfit, surly, full of contradictions, with a chip on his shoulder and a mind as focused on and in love with writing as is Bella’s. He is obsessed with Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment.” He is out of step with his generation (“Twitter is for people who are terrified of solitude”) and at heart an old-fashioned romanticist (“Email’s not my style. I prefer penmanship. Getting ink on your fingers. The human effort”).

In some ways, they are yin and yang; she’s all about following rules and protocol, while he simply follows his own instincts. Yet something sparks when they are together. They admire — and, surprisingly, seem to trust — each other. He loved her published works and cites long passages as he paces her office, praising her novel (after which she seems to melt, and tells him to call her Bella instead of Professor Baird). She is impressed by his ambition (he is writing a novella with himself as the protagonist) and prodigious intellect.

Under Bryn Boice’s spot on direction, the rest of the play (no spoilers here!) weaves a tapestry borne of their conversations. They become more honest and unguarded with each other, exposing an almost erotic, yet chaste, intimacy that lifts each out of his fundamental sadness. It is no surprise that Christopher’s novella bears a quote from “Crime and Punishment: “We sometimes encounter people, even perfect strangers, who begin to interest us at first sight, somehow suddenly, all at once, before a word is spoken.”

Jennifer Rohn brings a gorgeous nuance to Bella, imbuing her (many, many) lines with pathos, compassion and, when called for, playfulness. Her body language shifts on a dime; her vocal pacing and tone are subtle and effective.

As Christopher, Nathan Mailin brings the same qualities he did as a runaway star in ‘Admissions,’ the 2019 SpeakEasy Stage production where he debuted as a 20-year-old BU student. He has tempered and honed his style (which still has enormous range and presence) and brings depth, vulnerability and physicality to a character that could have easily become a caricature in less capable hands. Individually, each is superb; together, they are simply sublime.

Cannot be recommended highly enough.

Presented by Speakeasy Stage in the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts through Oct 16, 2021.

For COVID protocol, go to https://www.speakeasystage.com/visit/covid-masks-vax/

For tickets and more info, go to https://www.speakeasystage.com/shows/2021/09/the-sound-inside/

Nathan Malin and Jennifer Rohn in ‘The Sound Inside’