If all you know of the Aran Islands is the plays of Martin McDonagh, you probably think their populace is an untamed and violent lot. Similarly, if you take your information from Laura Schellhardt's Shapeshifter, which is in its world premiere by Trinity Repertory Company (through May 31), you might imagine that everyone on Orkney either is a selkie or is dating one. Really, there's only one guy on the whole hardscrabble Scottish archipelago of Schellhardt's imagining whose love object is not something beastly, bewitching, and wild.
Just one of the shape shifters of this evocative fable set in "a time before this one" is actually a seal that morphs into a person (and none of the play's transformers is male). The theater piece begins, in near darkness punctuated by a flickering candle, as an old man named Fierson tells the spine-chilling tale of a female dragon who, in human form, falls in love with a man whom her fire-breathing half sees as lunch. This dangerous inter-species romance holds particular resonance for Midge, the only child on the island, whose mother has died under murky circumstances, bequeathing her a legacy of premonition and attraction to flame.
Probably all of the play's interconnected romances are part of one imaginative skein through which Midge finds her way toward letting go of the mom who seems to have escaped more than shuffled off this mortal coil. But no sooner has the storytelling orgy of Fierson and Midge been dampened by the return of his wife than the aging couple's son, Tom, shows up carrying a mysterious woman he's pulled from the sea. She speaks no English; in fact, she doesn't speak at all, except to emit an eerie, open-mouthed gush of sound somewhere between whale song and an elephant's call. There is a wedding, and soon this shy creature, whom Midge dubs Mairie, is with child.
Midge's regret-ridden father, Mike, is wary, but fierce bachelor chum Douglas is jealous. Soon he's hoarding a violent shape shifter of his own, a swan forcibly separated from her feathery plumage, and aiming for shotgun nuptials. All of the play's transformers are played by one actress, the balletic Rachael Warren, who, whether one spirit or three, represents female selfhood sacrificing part of its essence for human love and domesticity. But the play is less about its shape shifters than it is about Midge, who must finally reconcile her strange, instinctual gifts and agitated grief with an embrace of life and community. That doesn't mean that the cryptic plotting and triple casting aren't confusing. Like Elizabeth Egloff's contemporary fairy tale The Swan, which it resembles, Shapeshifter is notable more for its atmospheric smoke and mirrors than for its thematic clarity.
Nonetheless, Trinity rises to the play's lyrical, otherworldly occasion. Schellhardt began her feminist spin on Celtic and other legends six years ago, while a grad student at Brown, so the play's professional premiere, helmed by Laura Kepley, is a return to the roost for this young recipient of a TCG National Playwriting Residency with the Providence troupe. And the company brings urgency, sweetness, and a sense of the surreal to the script. On Loy Arcenas's craggy set, a pebbly cove nestles before a crude sort of house with two unanchored beams floating above the kitchen. Vets Brian McEleney and Anne Scurria exude an almost giddy earthiness as Fierson and his wife, Maud, and Stephen Thorne imbues the passive Tom with a gentle knowingness. Fred Sullivan Jr. and Joe Wilson Jr. convey the yearning beneath the toughness of seafaring, gun-toting Mike and Douglas. And though pigtailed Miriam Silverman is no child, her troubled Midge eschews cuteness for genuine wonder.