Monday, January 12, 2004

Dark time in isle history
is brought to chilling life

There is no uglier episode in 20th-century Hawaiian history than the interconnected criminal cases involving Thalia Massie and Joseph Kahahawai in the early 1930s. Kumu Kahua Artistic Director Harry Wong III and a well-synchronized cast bring that ugly episode to life in Kumu Kahua's impressive and well-paced world premiere production of Dennis Carroll's "Massie/Kahahawai." This is imaginative theater on all counts -- script, cast, direction.

"Massie/Kahahawai," presented by Kumu Kahua Theatre, continues at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 4 p.m. Sundays through Feb. 8. Tickets are $16 ($13 on Thursdays). Call 536-4441.

Director Wong's use of abrupt choreographed movements quickly establishes the surging social conflicts and political tensions that convulsed Honolulu during the trials. The audience watches from risers on all sides of the performance area, but Wong deploys "offstage" cast members behind the risers whose muttered comments add another element of confusion. Daniel Gelbman (technical director) and John Wat (slide production) provide an important reference point by projecting typewriter-style graphics on the walls to indicate the date and time of various incidents.

Most of the facts of the sordid story are well known: Thalia Massie, young wife of naval officer Thomas Massie, told police she had been beaten and raped by five "Hawaiians" around midnight of Sept. 12, 1931. Five "local boys" were brought to trial. Much of the physical and circumstantial evidence indicated that they were innocent, but the jury deadlocked and the judge was forced to declare a mistrial. The men were released pending a second trial.

One was kidnapped and beaten by a group of Navy men several days later. Less than a month after that, Lt. Massie, his mother-in-law and two sailors kidnapped another of the five, Joseph Kahahawai. Police found Kahahawai's body in the back of their car later that day. The grand jury reluctantly returned an indictment for second-degree murder, but the verdict was manslaughter with leniency recommended. A 10-year prison sentence was cut to one hour by Gov. Lawrence Judd.

Thalia Massie left Hawaii shortly afterward, and charges against the four surviving rape defendants were dropped.

Because this occurred during the period in which "kamaaina haoles" held political and economic power in the islands, it would be easy for a contemporary playwright to tell the story as a strident exercise in "haole"-bashing. Playwright Carroll wisely sidesteps that simplistic approach by creating the script entirely from courtroom testimony, newspaper articles, memoirs and other published sources. Some chilling souls are on display here -- and the ugliest are indeed Caucasian -- but Carroll allows the villains to speak for themselves. None of the dialogue is invented, and no speculative theories are made.

Siobhan Edmondson (Thalia Massie) quickly becomes the focal point of the dark and ugly story. She spends much of Act 1 screaming and staggering erratically across the stage in ways that suggest a battered rape victim fleeing her attackers, but which could just as easily represent an attempt to escape older emotional or physical traumas. Elsewhere in the story, Edmondson is carried by members of the ensemble or her limbs are manipulated by another actor, to suggest a woman who has become the pawn of those around her.

Someone whose identity remains unknown more than 70 years later beat Thalia Massie on the night in question. Edmondson gives a convincing portrayal of a young and possibly mentally unstable woman whose actions swept her into a emotional maelstrom over which she had no control.

Sylvia Hormann-Alper (Grace Bell Fortescue) gives the show's most chilling performance, describing the methodical, almost gleeful stalking of Joseph Kahahawai, the attempt to dump his body in the ocean and her own bewilderment at being charged with a crime.

Martin Monahan (Adm. Yates Sterling) could easily have camped up Sterling as a stereotypical Southern white bigot. Yes, Sterling was a white supremacist, but Monahan's restrained performance allows the audience to recognize his racism in real time, rather than encountering him as a playwright's designated villain.

Craig Howe (Clarence Darrow) adds a surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of the famed attorney who defended the killers with a variation of the ever-popular "temporary insanity" theory. Darrow apparently actually came into the case believing that he was defending four people who wouldn't otherwise get a fair trial in Hawaii.

Hank Chapin (Gov. Judd) is particularly effective in putting forth Judd's after-the-fact argument that he commuted the killers' sentences only in order spare Hawaii from a crippling economic boycott, martial law and the possible imposition of dictatorial commission rule.

Max Smart (Lt. Massie) plays Thalia's husband as a shifty-eyed nonentity. Michael Proffitt (Jones) and Aito Steele (Lord) step out of the ensemble for solid performances as his two dog-loyal sailor-accomplices.

Vince Keala Lucero (Kahahawai) plays the murdered man with quiet dignity. It is chilling to hear Kahahawai "speak" after knowing of him for so many years only as a murder victim. M.J. Gonzalvo (Benny Ahakuelo), Stu Hirayama (Henry Chang), Eric Mita (David Takai) and Ryan Sueoka (Horace Ida) step out of the ensemble to portray Kahahawai's more fortunate companions.

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