Friday, February 21, 2003

"Tongues" and "Savage/Love," two works by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and actor Sam Shepard, will be presented with masks, puppetry, percussion and poetry, in an examination of life, love and death. The presentation is Kennedy Theatre's third "LateNight" offering.

Lab tests
cryptic theater

John Berger

Late nights at the Ernst Lab Theatre has been the site of many theatrical experiments over the past decade, and the current production, the Hawaii premiere of two short works written by Sam Shepard and Joseph Chaikin, is certainly one of them. Both "Tongues" and "Savage/Love" can be approached more as poems or performance texts than as conventional scripts, and there is ample opportunity for student actors and directors to experiment with everything from cast size to audio-visual embellishments.

'Tongues' and

Where: Ernst Lab Theatre, UH-Manoa
When: 11 p.m. today and tomorrow
Tickets: $7 general; $6 students, seniors, military and UH-Manoa faculty and staff; $3 for UH-Manoa students with valid spring 2003 ID
Call: 956-7655

Director Allyson Paris, a cast of six and puppeteer Pawalak Suraswadi generally opt for a straightforward presentation of both plays as dark and cryptic theater. No allowances are made for anyone who may not be familiar with the material.

"Tongues" is particularly opaque. Little of what is happening is clear, and much is left to the audience's imagination. Suraswadi's effective performance, animating a featureless child-size figure, is the most accessible component of an otherwise enigmatic piece about a woman (Danel Verdugo) who may be dead, or who may be dreaming she's dead, or who may know she's dead but in denial about it.

Offstage percussion was also included in "Tongue," perhaps as a nod to the early performances by the playwrights in which percussion was a significant element, but the offstage noises felt more like an afterthought than an inherent part of Paris' interpretation.

"Savage/Love" is clearer and more mainstream in comparison. Yes, even unconventional cutting-edge playwrights like Shepard and Chaikin are interested in the everyday give and take of basic human relationships, and "Savage/Love" is much easier to follow. Cast members Megan Braverman, Chris Doi, Tracyn Hagos, Kristy Miller and Lei Sadakari join Verdugo in splitting a series of monologues about relationships six ways.

The experiences enacted are universal -- looking for that special someone, meeting them, wondering if they're thinking about someone else during intimate moments and dealing with the ebb and flow of a tumultuous relationship.

Paris breaks the cast down into couples for some segments but features Doi in "Beggar," a piece that begins with the protagonist begging for "the tiniest part" of his lover and breaks down into a rant of the "I don't need you anyway" variety.

Paris deploys the cast on a stark black stage, with the audience positioned on three sides of the performance area. A few black cubes suffice as props -- Verdugo's "bed" in "Tongues," for example.

Even so, sightlines became problematic when Paris' staging causes one or more of the performers to block the view of some of the others. A seat in the small center section gives die-hard fans of Shepard and Chaikin, and any curious insomniac theatergoers, the best view of Paris' interpretation of these two enigmatic performance pieces.

There were relatively few of either in evidence on opening night.

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