Creative History, Complex Characters
In Sean T.C. O’Malley’s latest play, Robert William Kalanihiapo Wilcox is depicted in the latter part of his career, as the first Hawaiian delegate to congress. Unfortunately, since Hawaii is at that time a territory to the US, Wilcox’s position lacks a vote, and therefore any real power in Washington City. Wilcox’s Shot, a world premiere at Kumu Kahua Theatre (KKT)–and O’Malley’s third production featuring this historical character–gets inside the life of the man, exploring his relationships and his struggle to make a difference in the face of indifference, or worse.
You don’t have to know the history to understand the issues brought forth in Wilcox’s Shot–just pay attention. O’Malley places his protagonist in the political stew of 1901 America, exposing the complexities of race, place and gender relations.
Historical fact pulled from newspaper articles and other reliable sources, music and performance art of the period, and the suppositions of a talented imagination combine through a series of realistic and stylized scenes into a compelling drama. O’Malley’s dramaturgical prowess provides Director Brett T. Botbyl with a number of challenging opportunities.
The early scenes develop the playfully intimate relationship between Wilcox and his wife, Princess Theresa Owana Kaoheleani Laanui Wilcox, played by Danielle Zalopany, whose expressions throughout manage to convey quite a few unwritten words. This princess is beautiful and independent minded–a force to be reckoned with.
Albert Ueligitone stars as Wilcox, bringing to life a fully realized character, with genuine emotion, charisma and charm (and a really good mustache). A younger Ueligitone portrayed a younger Wilcox in O’Malley’s second play featuring the character, Island Skin Songs, when it premiered at KKT over a decade ago, which may explain why he knows this part inside and out. The passion of husband and wife–for one another and for their cause–ignites much of the tension.
The rest comes from the Wilcoxes’s interaction with other famous historical figures: Theodore and “Edie” Roosevelt; entertainer Bert Williams; and even anarchist Emma Goldman. Each historical character brings something important to the story.
O’Malley imagines Theodore and Edie, played by Tony Nickelsen and Jenn Thomas, as somewhat intimate acquaintances of the Wilcoxes. Nickelsen’s Roosevelt affects strength greater than he truly possesses and, though a good person at heart, is ultimately unable to stand up for his beliefs. Thomas commands–her husband and everyone watching–as the fan-wielding first wife. Their relationship provides a dramatic counterpoint to the Wilcoxes’s.
Rikki Jo Hickey’s Emma Goldman is a chiding yet flirty “aunty” figure with a sharp Lithuanian tongue: “Don’t bet their trained monkey,” she warns. Her reappearance late in the play has a surreal quality, as though Wilcox, high on his stomach tonic Peruna, has possibly dreamt her up in his time of need.
Actors Troy M. Apostol, Scott Robertson and Jordan T. Savusa, each with two roles, provide remarkably authentic characters. Robertson’s Leon Czolgosz is flawlessly extreme. “I am a man of action too,” he says, in a show-stopping moment. Savusa’s Booker T. Washington exudes composure.
The relationship between performance and politics is a theme in Wilcox’s Shot–both politician and performer must play to the audience. Apostol’s Bert Williams–in a perspicaciously directed scene–makes the comparison shortly before the stage transitions to an out-of-time spotlight on the performer presenting the song “Nobody,” which speaks to the callousness of the era and the sad, solitary state of human existence.
Boxing is also used as a metaphor–sparring and shadow. The shadowboxing scenes deliver Wilcox’s frustration and are perfectly staged to complement his ineffectual petitions to congress. The sparring scenes between Wilcox and Roosevelt, brilliant in theory, fall flat in this staging. The realistic approachappears awkward and false.
Botbyl’s vision, as mentioned in his director’s note, of “sepia hues and faded newsprint” shows in the set, costume, and lighting designs, and the scenes end in a “freeze frame” evoking old photographs. Unfortunately, many of the scene changes take as long to manage as those old cameras probably took to change the film. Done in blackout, much inherent momentum dies in the dark.
Wilcox’s Shot will fascinate anyone with an interest in historical drama and the play should in no way be thought of as a nostalgic period piece. The complex relationship created between Wilcox and Roosevelt reveals the sticky entanglements of power, action and popular opinion. The final scene is a subtle dance, a culmination of ideas on what it means to be a patriot, a leader, a friend or maybe just a human being–someone striving to do something, to take a shot.