Pig demigod and Pele clash
Although the title of the play is "Pele Ma," so much of the action in Kumu Kahua's current production is dominated by the volcano goddess' super-masculine nemesis, Kamapua'a, that the mighty pig demigod could easily claim equal billing. Even without that, Aito Simpson Steele gives a career-best performance in the role.
Where: Kumu Kahua Theatre, 46 Merchant St.
When: Continues 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through Feb. 10
Tickets: $16, $13 Thursdays
Call: 536-4441 or visit kumukahua.org
Steele's energetic performance positions Kamapua'a as a classic antihero, coarse and bombastic at times but also brave, tough and honorable. He vanquishes enemy champions one on one in battle, finds ways to honor his obligations to one side without breaking his commitments to the other, and teaches two haughty women an important lesson about the importance of being nice.
It must also be mentioned, however, that when Pele taunts Kamapua'a about his piglike appearance, his final response is physical -- he attempts to rape her. In some versions of the story, he succeeds; in this one adapted by director John H.Y. Wat, Kennly T. Asato and Laurel Nakanishi from Frederick B. Wichman's book "Pele Ma: Legends of Pele from Kaua'i," Pele escapes.
Steele and the other male members of the cast wear traditional pre-missionary Hawaiian attire, and the choreography of the rape scene is sufficiently realistic that Steele almost lost his malo on opening night. Despite being, as he put it after the show, "95 percent naked onstage," he not only remained completely in character, but utilized the errant garment to represent the pig god's tail.
Steele's wardrobe malfunction occurred during one of the stories that comprises the first half of this fascinating celebration of traditional Hawaiian culture. In Act 1, Pele and some of her siblings arrive in Hawaii, then search for a suitable place to live until they settle on the Big Island. In the best traditions of cliffhanger storytelling, Act 1 ends with the first installment of the story of Pele and the human alii Lohi'au.
Pele and Lohi'au fall in love, she returns to the Big Island and he commits suicide. That depressing love-gone-wrong story becomes the prelude to Act 2 and the best-known romantic triangle in Hawaiian history, the story of Lohi'au, Pele and her sister, Hi'iakaikapoliopele.
A beautifully nuanced performance by Jessica Haworth quickly defines Hi'iakaikapoliopele as our heroine. Sent by Pele to bring Lohi'au to the Big Island, the younger goddess battles evil mo'o (supernatural lizards), forces Lohi'au's spirit back into his body and struggles to keep her own feelings for him in check. Haworth wears the role beautifully and shares credit with David Hashisaka (Lohi'au) for making the problematic romance that follows seem authentic rather that a requirement of the script. Hashisaka's earlier scenes with Lindsay Shannon, one of two women who portray Pele, seem cold and distant compared with his work with Haworth.
Shannon shares the title role with fashion designer, dancer and costume designer Puamana Crabbe. Why two Peles are onstage at all times is never clarified, nor is it necessary. Crabbe owns the role visually; she didn't design Pele's post-missionary costume, but its red-and-black color scheme represents the goddess's affinity for fire and destruction.