second_flyer_2aTo put it simply, Isle of Shoals’ latest original production, “Occupation: Dragonslayer” by Bryan Williams, is an astoundingly beautiful and utterly transcendent experience.

I thought it was going to be about 9/11, but I was wrong. That’s the starting point, but it’s actually about me. It’s about you, too. It’s about us – the whole human family – and our shared human condition. It’s about how we can have infinite problems in our lives which can make us seem unique, separate, different, but our pain is always the same. Perversely, it’s that pain which unites us. And after many revelations on this theme and others, Williams inserts a little wisdom about how to lead a better life.  

Paul Chamberlain is Stepanek, an NYPD officer, and he. Is. A. ROCK. Jesus – we’re talking tears – his tears – in the opening number. The opening number! He, with the lovely Erin Clancy-Balsamo as Kiki, fulfill a sort of emotional-straight-man counterpart to the rest of the entire show. They are eminently graceful together.

Cecilia Vaicels plays Harriet, a tough, no-nonsense New York City boss with a motherly tenderness. Vaicels absolutely nails it, and that is not the kind of character that you can fake.

The comic artisan Arthur Lundquist plays the part of Antonio, a bit of an oddball, definitely a goof, with a heart of gold.

Lisa Gwasda plays the hard-nosed Major Beauvine, who leads her three children along on a quest to evangelize Lower Manhattan. The children are played by Benjamin Errig, Theodore Errig, and Ruby Spryte Balsamo, and together they team up to charm the pants off of the audience. The kids are cute, naturally (though the earmuffs help), but it turns out they’re fantastic little actors as well, and extremely effective on stage. They can make you laugh just as easily as cry at the drop of a hat. You are putty in their tiny little hands.

The fiery Kimberly Bello plays Mara, a contrary young lady who might be forsaken, but is resolutely not lost. The show has an ensemble cast, but Mara was my protagonist. She perfectly embodies what we, as Americans, were like in the heyday of American glory – in those days before the Twin Towers fell. She’s cynical, prickly, and beautiful. Slightly damaged, but not from any outward incident. And, true to this mythical characterization, Mara becomes seduced by power, greed, and spiritual hunger, only to put herself in the same unfortunate situation America had put herself in when a band of jihadis hijacked some planes a decade and a half ago….

Steve Walsh reaches down deep into the unspoken depths of his soul to give us the part of Gil, a 9/11 First Responder. He does so with such clarity and honesty that it’s like traveling through time, it feels so real….

Then there’s the Duchess, played by the formidable Judi Polson, a personification of Old New York prestige. She’s whimsical, romantic, perhaps completely insane, but nevertheless in possession of a resounding spirit and indomitable courage.

John Mervini, who plays our primary antagonist, is the proudly-sleazy real estate mogul Damon Slade. Mervini commands the stage effortlessly, as though it were his god-given right. He is sheer force of will in a slick suit, and when his eyes sparkle you want to kiss him and strangle him at the same time.

Lindsey Morgan rips your heart to shreds with her incredibly understated role as “the Forgotten One.” It’s not a huge role, but she does huge things with it.

Kevin F. Rogers, as the under-appreciated Felipe, wraps up his lovable personality in endearing awkwardness, spontaneous rap, and comic relief.

And then there’s this guy with amnesia, Chris, played by Steffen Alexander Whorton, whose only clues to his identity are his odd appearance: a Santa Claus costume with an FDNY shirt underneath.

The dazzling Cait Kelly, who plays the hope-filled Jenny, strips away all of the bullshit of the world and shows us a violently-gleaming slice of her own soul when she belts at us in “Absence,” one the most wondrous songs in the show, and also one of the most strikingly powerful numbers I’ve ever witnessed. I didn’t shed a tear until she yelled “Damn you!” …and then it was all over for me.

I say began, because I would cry several more times in show, and, in fact, afterward I cried myself literally all the way home that night.

But that’s not because this is a sad show. Anything but! I cried because it was supremely beautiful. Triumphant. Soaringly inspirational. A victory for the human spirit, and for the world of art.

Most of Williams’ best songs in the show were followed by utter silence in place of applause. But that stark silence was the sound of reverence.

Stephen Ryan directs this production, and his great theatrical experience is evidenced in myriad judicious choices. On the diner set, you can just barely make out a wall covered in papers… missing person posters. Subtley harrowing.

Ryan uses a scrim like I’ve never seen before, making me feel feelings I didn’t even know I could have.

Ryan coaxes some extreme performances from his actors in this show. There are tears flying, voices trembling, beat and ragged, and the sheer range of emotion goes off the chart at both ends…. This is really a beast of a show, and Ryan has made it look like cakewalk.

In my favorite example, Ryan brilliantly manages to recreate the unparalleled terror and chilling horror of what those poor souls, caught in the wreckage, went through on that fateful day…. And with nothing more than a well-timed blackout, and a flashlight.

The show’s creator, Bryan Williams, does not pull any punches as he dissects the most pressing of America’s current problems: consumer culture, the political plutocracy, the worth of people (particularly broken people), the heartbreak of loss, and more. But when we investigate the root causes of all these problems, Williams has the cruel magnanimity to point out that many of the issues we face are, in fact, our own fault.

That is one supremely bitter pill to swallow, but Williams administers it with heaping spoonfuls of sugar, in the form of humor, humanity, his stunning music, and even magic.

Bryan Williams crafts his music with an artistic precision and élan that goes well beyond being impressive. When the wheels are turning in our character’s heads, they might be singing long, unchanging notes, but you’ll hear the orchestra going crazy behind them. Williams makes you know without understanding why. He makes you feel what’s going on with everything you’ve got. It’s an intense sensation, and an unforgettable experience.

For this show, Isle of Shoals decided to sell concessions at intermission: coffee, cookies, snacks. They should’ve been selling kleenex and whiskey.