‘Once on This Island’ was euphoric.
“We acknowledge the Jagera and Turrbal people who are the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we work, learn and grow. We pay our respects to their Elders both past and present, and to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.” As cast member and proud Darumbal and Wulli-Wulli man, Garret Lyon concluded his Welcome to Country at ‘Once on This Island’ opening night, the entire theatre erupted with stamping feet, cheering and clapping. This unity, understanding and community was a feeling that would continue throughout the entire performance in a production that is not only aesthetically and technically sublime but reaches deep into the heart and touches the soul.
Newcomers to the Brisbane theatre scene, Altitude Theatre are moving from strength to strength in sourcing productions that celebrate the diversity, history, and beauty which runs deep within the local community. ‘Once on This Island’ originally opened off Broadway in 1990 and was brought back for a Broadway run in 2017, finally closing in 2019 after 458 performances. While the show has seen many cast iterations, the entire narrative is underpinned by the BIPOC community telling the story.
The production follows a somewhat ‘Romeo and Juliet’ narrative, with two worlds that aren’t quite so alike in dignity and a pair of star-crossed lovers. Inspired by history, ‘Once on This Island’ takes place on an island that is split in two. On one side live the peasants who are ‘as dark as night’ and on the other side live the fairer skinned ‘grand hommes’ who are descendants of the French. The two sides never mix until the Gods of Water, Earth, Death and Love strike a bargain with young Ti Moune when she falls deeply in love with Daniel, a grand homme who lives in the hotel Beauxhomme. What follows is a social commentary on racism and the love story of two worlds that were never meant to meet.
Lighting by Ben Hughes and sound design by Jackson Scandrett worked well within La Boite Theatre and flowed through the organic shapes and images within the production, becoming a storytelling medium in their own right. Hughes reflected the production’s connection to the earth through the use of soft washes and neutral colours. This, however, was juxtaposed by the harsh lighting used as Ti Moune ventured through the grand hommes’ land. Another magical moment was Storyteller Tallis Tutunoa’s dance sequence while Ti Moune nursed Daniel back to health. In a red wash with a tight spotlight in the centre, Tutunoa danced with vigor and passion, creating a moment that supported the crescendo in narrative stakes and the heightening of music. It was an impactful sequence where sound, lighting, music, dance, and song came together to create a deeply artistic moment. Scandrett created a sound scape that was well-balanced and highlighted the stunning timbre of the actor’s voices. While some small dialogue moments were lost under music, the levels were largely perfect and all integral sections could be heard.
Hair and makeup design by Jake Pafumi and costume design by Ella Lincoln was an outward expression of the character’s inner personality. Set in an undefined time period, the design was able to exist in a similarly liminal space. The majority of the ensemble cast wore modern clothing with neutral tones and patterns while the Gods were defined in ethereal costumes that communicated their status above the mortal man. Papa Ge, God of Death, was particularly striking, encased in the ribs of an animal. This costuming choice could have appeared clunky however the design of the piece fully became a part of Papa Ge and supported the menace found within the character. The God of Earth, Asaka, wore an ‘Always Was’ shirt, harking to his Indigenous heritage. It was a powerful and unapologetic choice which was refreshing to see on the stage. Pafumi created makeup looks that tied in with the actor’s cultural heritage, firmly cementing the themes of acceptance and diversity that ran throughout the production.
Set Design by Madeleine Barlow was compact and effective, making use of the round format of the stage. A simplistic raise in the centre of the round stage was moved and manipulated throughout the production to create a myriad of platforms and shapes, at all times framing the scenes and symbolically representing the action on stage. Director and choreographer, Bree Langridge, fully utilised this ingenious design and formed beautiful shapes on stage using the minimalistic design. Within the song ‘Mama Will Provide’, the raised semicircles were moved to form a curving path as Asaka led Ti Moune on her journey.
With dance comes self-expression and with self-expression comes power. Through her role as both director and choreographer, Langridge harnessed the power of both the individual and of the collective through energized dance sequences that celebrated everyone’s interwoven tapestry of heritage. Movement within the space was consistent and natural while moments of stillness were intelligently chosen and utilised. There was a natural ebb and flow throughout the entire performance which maintained audience engagement and supported the narrative.
While every element worked seamlessly within this show, the music was truly the hero and provided a base for the rich tapestry to be built upon. There was rarely a moment when there wasn’t music behind the action on stage. Music direction by Kuki Tipoki and associate Brendan Murtagh was intentional and charged. It is a challenging score, with incredibly intricate polyrhythms and vocal parts that have to seamlessly weave together. Tipoki handled this challenge with adept skill and led the talented musicians with gusto and passion. Glancing at Tipoki at the back of the stage, there was never a moment when he wasn’t fully engaged with the masterpiece that was being created. Husband to director Langridge, this is an absolute power team with passion and love at its core.
Lorinda May Merrypor fully embodied the fiercely loveable and unpredictable Ti Moune. The joy and unbridled energy of the character bubbled up through her entire being and audiences couldn’t help but fall in love with her wild spirit and stunning storytelling vocals. As her romantic counterpart, Conor Putland brought audiences a reserved Daniel. Putland played the character with intentionality and believability, twisting the audience’s hearts with Daniel’s eventual decision. Putland and May Merrypor blended beautifully together with soaring vocals and sizzling chemistry.
The calm presence of Patrice Tipoki as Erzulie, God of Love, was beautiful to witness. Tipoki floated through the space with grace and took the audience’s breath away with her controlled vocals. It was clear that Tipoki is not only a talented performer but a generous presence on stage. But where there is love, there is death and Vidya Makan as Papa Ge, God of Death, provided a stark contrast to Erzulie. With a stunning lower register and imposing presence, Makan was the perfect casting choice for Papa Ge. While there was darkness in Makan’s performance, this was skillfully balanced with moments of understanding and light.
Garret Lyon as Asaka, God of the Earth, absolutely had audiences picking up the multitude of things he was putting down. He was sassy goodness, warmth and vocals that had audiences stamping their feet and cheering for more. Lyon’s top notes were piercing and fierce while he balanced the zeal and energy of his character with overflowing generosity on the stage.
Rhys Velasquez as Agwe, God of Water, was a calm and inviting presence in the space. Agwe’s song ‘Rain’ was wholly magnificent as Velasquez had full reign to show off their powerful upper register.
Henry Kafoa as Ton Ton Julian and Asabi Goodman as Mama Euralie brought some of the most heartfelt yet equally powerful vocals within the production. It was beautiful to witness the connection of the characters with their land and their child and there were not many dry eyes after their song ‘Ti Moune’.
Danielle Remulta as Andrea and Storyteller was beautifully poised within her role and equally cold towards the unassuming Ti Moune. Mike Zarate as Armand and Storyteller delivered sublime vocals and comedy to the role of the upper-class Armand.
The Storytellers rounded out the rest of the production and, while they played the role of the ‘ensemble’, each of them were stunning storytellers in their own right. Tallis Tutunoa, Jade Delmiguez, Peter Wood, Alvin Rostant and Winston Morrison brought life, movement and genuine energy to the production. The story could not have been told without them. Through wildly complex vocal parts, effervescent dancing and swift set changes, each person played an integral role in the telling of the story. Rostant and Morrison also interchangeably became part of the band and seamlessly flowed between the two roles.
‘Once on This Island’ was brimming with pride, culture, stories, community, but most importantly love. The script was well-written and the music beautifully composed but what truly made this production shine was the humans who inhabited the space. Community is power and if the comradery found at ‘Once on This Island’ could be extended beyond those four walls, we would all live in a much happier and more understanding world.
‘Once on This Island’ performs until Saturday, 8 May 2021 at La Boite Theatre. For more information visit Altitude Theatre Website.
Photos by KH Designs