University of Hawaii's Kennedy Theatre
Michelle Boudreau as The White Snake.
Image: Courtesy of Kennedy theatre

UH’s Kennedy Theatre just can’t be pigeon-holed

University of Hawaii’s Kennedy Theatre / Theater in Honolulu has its riches–and its niches. It has to specialize. The public tends to associate a certain kind of show with a particular theater group, and allegiances form. Want kid shows? Honolulu Theatre for Youth. Da kine plays? Kumu Kahua. Serious drama? The Actors’ Group. Song and dance and sequins? Just about everybody else.

One local group has made its name producing all of the above, and more. Sadly, this artistic collective often gets the short shrift in the press despite the range and excellence of its productions. We’ll rectify that, and this year shine our Spring Arts spotlight on the Department of Theatre and Dance at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

Here are some spring highlights.

The White Snake (Bai She Zhuan)

This show’s storyline could just as well have come from Terry Gilliam: two snake spirits come to earth in the form of beautiful women. One falls in love with a mortal and marries him, but a vengeful monk makes all three of their lives miserable. There is death, resurrection, magical potions, kidnapping, battles between Water Spirits and Divine Warriors, and, of course, song and dance in the Chinese way.

“It’s a moving romance, with battle scenes,” says Elizabeth Wichmann-Walczak, director, who translated this famous jingqu (Chinese opera) with Punahou language teacher Hui-Mei Chang.

Kennedy Theatre made its name long ago for its highly authentic and colorful Asian theater productions. This production notably will feature lyrical flute music derived from Kunqu, an older classical theater form.

The show’s 30 actors and 15 musicians have been working hard to get ready. “We started the training at the beginning of the fall semester. We have three guest artists in residency from China: one teaching all the male roles, one teaching all the female roles and one teaching all of the orchestral performance,” Wichmann-Walczak says. “It’s really stupendous entertainment.”

Fri 2/5–Sun 2/14, Wed–Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm, $5–$22

Dancing Green

Not to be outdone by the theater folks, the dance branch of Kennedy is “taking sustainability to the stage” with Dancing Green, its annual dance concert, says choreographer Betsy Fisher, concert director and one of the choreographers.

“We’re taking a look at dance and environmental themes,” Fisher adds, and the program reflects that. Actually, there will be no programs for the program–all show notes will be projected onto a screen in the interest of sustainability.

The pieces are varied. Hula, modern dance and ballet are all represented, each following some theme of “green.” For one section, scenic designer Joseph Dodd has planned a set made from plastic bottles and soda cans. Costumer Sandra K. Finney will be creating (or re-creating) outfits in a sustainable way. “No easy task,” Fisher muses. “Instead of building new things, we have to pull things, combine them, cut them up and put them together in different ways.”

Even some pieces are recycled: the show includes three ballet solos created by 19th century French choreographer Marius Petipa. Not every element will be seeing second life, however: Ernie Provencher, local composer and bassist-of-many-gigs, will write a score for one of the works.

Thu–Sat 3/11–3/13, 8pm, Sun 3/12, 2pm, $5–$20

The Judith of Shimoda & Mahagonny Songspiel

Bertolt Brecht hasn’t written much lately–he’s been dead since 1956–but the prolific and influential German playwright and poet somehow turns out new work. Or rather, a new work of Brecht’s has turned up. The story of how his Die Judith von Shimoda found genesis in Japan, fruition in Finland, restoration and performance in Germany and finally wound up in Honolulu would be a play in itself.

This will be the world premiere of Judith in English, with translation by Kennedy Theatre professor Markus Wessendorf and directed by colleague Paul T. Mitri. Based on a Japanese tale, with overtones of the Biblical Book of Judith, the play examines how society builds up and tears down its heroes.

The production will be theatrical, to say the least.

“We’re going to use aerial dance techniques to create a vertical play with space for part of the show,” Mitri says. “I love anything that’s theatrical.”

Accompanying Judith will be the Brecht & Weill cantata, Mahagonny Sonspiel, a shorter version of their later satirical opera Mahagonny. Hawaii Opera Theatre’s Henry Akina directs.

Fri & Sat 4/30–5/1, 8pm, Sun 5/2, 2pm, $5–$20
All shows at Kennedy Theatre, 1770 East-West Road, [], 956-7655