Stage / Recipe for a play: take one book of poetry, preferably plump and fully-grown, with a crop full to bursting. Grasp it by a wing lest it escape, squawking, back onto your shelves. Slice open its gut with a sharp sense of purpose and raise the book high and shivering over a large bowl roughly the size of small theatre. Grab its small legs and spread them. Spread them slowly. After two dozen or so poems tumble out, mash them vigorously with a stick of inspired staging. Spice the mixture to the taste of the local tongue. While you’re at it, toss in local tongues. Keep your fingers out of the mix. Then serve, steaming hot and call it Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre.
Lucy in da pie
Kumu Kahua Theatre’s latest platter of local kine drama gets that recipe absolutely right, and it’s a big slice of “pidgin pie.” This is a show you don’t want to miss.
Under the direction of Harry Wong III, a remarkably versatile and talented cast of seven women and two men enact multiple roles and tell interwoven stories, all pulled from Lois-Ann Yamanaka’s 1993 book of the same title. If you’re not familiar with Yamanaka’s debut volume–and I was not before I saw the show–it’s a series of poems from the viewpoint of adolescent girls on the Big Island circa 1970s. Yamanaka uses pidgin to tell the girls’ stories, delving into complex issues of race, sex, status and physical abuse, all with a keen eye and keener ear, always with compassion and often with earthy humor.
Director Wong has deftly teased apart Yamanaka’s poems, retaining their complexity but juxtaposing them–reweaving them–into a narrative that centers upon one girl in particular, a self-conscious journal writer named Lucy. Played by Elexis Draine, Lucy is the touchstone of the piece and Draine plays her with sensitivity and heart. It is impossible to imagine another actress doing as well with such a demanding role. Draine inhabits Lucy, captures the audience and never lets go despite being on stage for almost the whole show. A bravura performance: touching, funny and true to the words she speaks.
Draine is not alone, however, in making Yamanaka’s words come to life. The rest of the cast creates another 30 or so characters, diving in and out of costumes, wigs, voices and even animal ears to present us with the figures surrounding Lucy in the small and frequently pain-filled world of Pahala Town. There is the terrifying troupe of schoolyard “titas,” viciously derogatory toward Lucy, relentlessly posturing for status among themselves, and, in a nice touch by the director, sometimes confronting the audience face-to-face with hilarious, bitchy complaints. It would be giving away the joy of this scene to explain further, but for folks who have lived through the ‘70s, you will be reminded of many things you have forgotten (and probably for the better).
Lucy’s visits to her gentle taxidermist neighbor, Bernie, provide another trope. Bernie and his wife offer a warm, albeit macabre, refuge for Lucy from the pressures of Pahala. Shawn Anthony Thomsen plays Bernie as a welcome respite of humanity in the midst of other characters who are nasty, brutish…even short.
One scene finds Bernie and Lucy climbing up Haupu mountain after Lucy’s mother, played by the talented Stephanie Keiko Kong, throws her out of the house for the day, cursing Lucy as she goes. The scene that follows is brief, but, as so many of Yamanaka’s poems do, it has an inner turning that uplifts and delights. As Bernie and Lucy climb, they pass the bones of a dead cow, grass growing out of an eye socket. Live horses and cows follow them, but Bernie chases them away, telling Lucy, “No sked.”
At the end of the hike, Lucy and Bernie peer down the mountain ridge at Pahala, and Lucy says, “I look down at our camp and my house. Real small. So small, I cover everything with my hands and no see nothing at all.” This exquisite moment hovers, still and quiet and pure. We’re right there on the ridge with Lucy though the two actors have never left the stage.
This is what makes poetry come alive and keeps theatre relevant: a living voice in the same room as you, vibrating in your space; a three-dimensional actor evoking your laughter and your silence; the imagination of an audience that transforms a bench into a yellow Datsun, an upturned box into a desk, a crouching man into a feisty rooster or a dying dog.
Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre is, at its heart, an ensemble show and this ensemble is tight. The other actors deserve mention here: Lauren Ballesteros, Alvin Chan, Moanililia Miller, Kelli Pagan, Maila P. Rondero and Danielle Zalopany. Their energy and enthusiasm keep the play moving and the action crystalline.
I do have one quibble. In Yamanaka’s book, there is no through-line for the Lucy character. This is a directorial invention, which gives structure to the other poems, a matrix for the mix of scenes. The device works well–up until the Lucy persona is abandoned while Draine enacts two other characters.
No doubt most audience members leap over or ignore this inconsistency, but, on the other hand, why should they? Less is more here. The poetry of Yamanaka is strong enough that trimming these scenes would do no harm and would keep the action centered on Lucy. As it is now, the ending takes a right turn without signalling and that, I think, is an unwise move in an otherwise stellar production.