Monday, November 17, 2003

Danel Verdugo, left, and Kathy Hunter star in the interactive production "Principles of Falling," showing through Sunday.

‘Almost’ acting is
actually enjoyable

Interactive theater is by definition demanding, with the audience expected to become part of the performance and take partial responsibility for the outcome. It can also be confusing, as much of the action takes place outside the main performance area and no one experiences the entire story.

"Principles of Falling" will be presented by Cruel Theatre every 30 minutes from 8 to 10 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Nov. 29 and 30 at Coffee Talk, 3601 Waialae Ave. Tickets are $12 ($10 for students). Call 523-1004.

That's what awaits as Taurie Kinoshita and Cruel Theatre present "Principles of Falling." The production is billed as "the last chance for Hawaii audiences to see theater of this kind." The nominal intent is to address issues involving the 14th Amendment -- "public vs. private life" and the degree to which people are judged by how they live their private lives. Do we decide to fall in love with a certain person, or does it just happen? Is it right to judge people by what they do in private with other consenting adults? I didn't get much of either of those issues as I participated in one of the scenarios Saturday, but it still was an entertaining and painless experience.

"Principles of Falling" could not be reviewed without participating fully in the action, so I had to set convention aside and perform, rather than observe from a distance as usual. I received an item of clothing to identify my character and was given a brief description of the scenario.

I played Pastor Joshua Langen, of the North Shore Christian Church. Active in outreach and counseling programs, I was waiting for Ruth Esther Jacobs, a young woman whom I had encouraged to assume leadership of our church choir. Ruth was apparently doing a great job with the choir, but as I read between the lines of the scenario sheet, I sensed that she either had personal problems to discuss with "Pastor Josh" or perhaps was a graduate of one of my counseling programs and had a "past" to deal with.

Cruel rules

At Cruel Theatre, there are no rules, except:

-- Each audience includes just five people, and all become players.

-- You must wear (or display) your costume piece so your actor can identify you.

-- No violent or abusive language or physical contact; consensual hugs and handshakes are permissible.

-- You will be asked to leave Coffee Talk with your actor as part of the act; if you are unwilling to do so, your story line ends.

-- You might be exposed to cigarette smoke.

-- Ticket price does not include food and beverages; purchases at Coffee Talk are optional.

Ruth turned out to be Danel Verdugo, a versatile actor with impressive prior credits in both conventional and unconventional theater here. We chatted for a while in character as "Ruth" updated "Pastor Josh" on the choir and on a particularly difficult outreach case involving a 15-year-old girl who was being sexually harassed by a clique of football players at a prestigious private school. Then things got interesting.

We were joined by two other versatile high-profile local actors, Moses Goods and Brent Yoshikami, and I had no idea which one of them was a cast member and which was a participant. Or were they both in the cast? That turned out to be unimportant as far as the flow of the story was concerned.

Goods was playing a buddy of Ruth's ex-boyfriend; Yoshikami was a guy who apparently knew all of three of them from a community college cooking class. The two let it slip that Ruth's ex had been telling anyone who will listen that she's a freelance slut.

The two apologized profusely after Ruth tearfully denied their accusations, but after they left she asked if we could go outside to continue our conversation. How could "Pastor Josh" refuse a request for help from a soul in pain?

I discovered as we strolled through the adjacent parking lot that Ruth did indeed have other problems for "Pastor Josh" to sort through. We also encountered a frightened woman (Taurie Kinoshita) who thought her physically abusive husband was following her in a white car and was planning to take sole custody of their son.

Call my contribution to the action role playing rather than acting. I addressed their problems as I would in real life, but with a stronger emphasis on Christian references. "Pastor Josh" reminded Ruth that Christ welcomed repentant prostitutes and tax collectors into his church, and therefore modern Christians could and should do no less. It is not for us to stand in judgment on others -- although "Pastor Josh" did suggest in a nonjudgmental way that Ruth might want to "slow down" and not rush into sexual relationships.

"Pastor Josh" also suggested that although Christians believe in God's will, there are times when He may intend for us to assume some responsibility -- and be willing to use a TRO against an abusive spouse or file suit against a university that rescinds a scholarship.

It was a painless introduction to "almost acting," since all I had to do was respond to Verdugo, and "Ruth" apparently hadn't done anything that a caring Christian pastor would find abhorrent.

The final scene was the most difficult because the energy level was much higher and it involved all the other participants -- several other familiar actors among them. It was a bit intimidating to be "acting" in the presence of a Po'okela Award-winning actor (Yoshikami, who turned out to be a participant) and three others -- Verdugo, Goods and Alvin Chan -- whom I had previously reviewed in strong performances.

Interactive theater isn't for the passive or slow-witted, but "Principles of Falling" offers adventurous theater fans a great opportunity to experience almost acting with some of Honolulu's best young actors.

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