“Islander” – Herberger Theatre Center

Theater Review – January 14, 2024


Herberger Theater Center, Center Stage
Phoenix, AZ

By Chris Curcio
Theater Critic

When the Herberger Theater Center opened on July 19, 1989 with “Party of One,” produced by the now defunct Musical Theatre of Arizona, it was an auspicious debut for a much-anticipated new dual theater complex.  Filled with the latest stage and audience amenities not previously available in the area’s storefront playhouses or college auditoriums, a new dawn for local theater premiered.

Many theater companies were anxious to move to the Herberger and they hoped to better produce their shows in a fully equipped facility.  The building was heavily booked by Arizona Theatre Company, Actors Theatre of Phoenix, Arizona Jewish Theatre, and local dance companies.  Unfortunately, higher production costs and elevated rental rates at the Herberger caused companies to collapse or again seek lower rental presenting spaces.

Now these many years later, sparkling new theaters have opened with improved services.  Some upgrades have been made, but the Herberger has sat idle much of the time with community companies like Valley Youth Theatre now filling Herberger space while many remaining Herberger tenants have shifted to newer theaters. Downtown has lost allure and parking is expensive.

To revive the facility, the Herberger is now presenting its own shows.  They are importing theater that the Herberger would have never previously booked like “Cooking with the Calamari Sisters,” a combination drag show and comedy attraction currently running at the facility’s smaller Stage West until January 28

For its first season in the larger Center Stage, they’ve booked two touring companies and a Canadian musical that might go to Broadway and London after a world premiere here.  The first show in Center Stage is a new Scottish folk musical “Islander.”

The show premiered at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe followed by an off-Broadway run.  It attracted positive reviews and the touring production is nicely presented but it is a strange show full of unique technical marvels.  Two performers play a variety of diverse roles on a small Scottish island that is gradually losing its last residents.  A beached whale causes confrontations and the various characters explore trust among the remaining population.  The pleasant but undistinguished music is hampered by the resident’s thick Scottish brogue making much of the dialogue difficult to follow.

The musical’s many technical tricks are created by the two performers who spend much of the short show pushing buttons and moving sound equipment about removing their focus from the myriad of roles they execute.  The lighting and “sound looping” technology often get in the storytelling’s way.

On opening night, the double cast roles were essayed by Stephanie Macgaraidh and Sylvie Stenson.  They both busily went about their hectic jobs singing well, acting sincerely, and moving nimbly about the stage in a busy testament to try to visually enhance the piece.

If you are looking for a unique way of storytelling, “Islander” is for you but if more conventional theater is your thing, “Islander” will prove challenging. “Islander” continues through January 28.  To order tickets, call the Herberger Theater Center box office at 602-252-8497 or order tickets online at www.HerbergerTheater.org.

Grade: B