Star-Bulletin Features

Thursday, January 7, 1999

Kumu Kahua photo
Left to right: Jack Boyle, Nara Springer, Lisa Omoto
(costumer), Cheryl Bartlett, Albert Ueligitone and
Yvette Fernandez perform as various characters in
Sean T.C. O'Malley's collection of love stories.

More than one
way to skin
a love story

By John Berger


Sean T.C. O'Malley's new play, "Island Skin Songs," contains both skin and songs. He finds the music and the stories more significant than the skin.

"There are five songs that people from different cultures sing in different languages, two traditional folk melodies and three songs that I wrote the music for. It's not quite a musical but it's a play with music."

O'Malley remains best known as a core member of the Loose Screws improvisational comedy group, but this is his second full-length play -- his first to be produced here -- and it opens tomorrow at Kumu Kahua.

"The interesting thing is that when I'm doing improvisation for performance, it's almost invariably comic to some degree. When I sit down to write a script I've been writing drama. These five stories take place at different phases of relationships. Some are ending. Others are beginning. Some are long term. Others are short."

"Island Skin Songs" owes its genesis to a cassette of traditional Irish songs O'Malley received from his brother in Ireland. O'Malley eventually wrote new lyrics to one of the songs and created a new old-fashioned Irish song about a 19th century Irish sailor in Lahaina. A year or so later he heard a Russian folk song and created a companion piece about a Russian sailor.

"It was about that point that (my wife) Lurana said, 'Maybe you have a play there.' I decided I'd take several stories and keep them going, see what kinds of parallels came out and what kinds of ideas could be drawn from seeing them together. From that point on it was doing the research and placing it in the significant eras in Hawaiian history."

Lurana, an associate professor of theatre and dance at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa, is directing the production. It's her debut directing a show for Kumu Kahua.

"Island Skin Songs" tells the stories of social and sexual encounters across two centuries. A Russian sailor meets an young Hawaiian woman at Kealakekua in 1804. A handsome baptized Hawaiian, back from the seminary in 1835, tempts and terrifies his former teacher, a missionary's widow. An Irishman jumps ship in Lahaina and falls in love with a Hawaiian prostitute in 1855. An Italian baroness finds life in Hawaii not to her liking in 1887. The marriage of a contemporary couple in Nanakuli is rocked by infidelity.

All this could easily be fodder for a pretentious or heavy handed theatrical rant on male sexism, racism, cultural imperialism and other politically correct themes. O'Malley leaves such axe-grinding to others.

"It touches on some political subjects but I'm more inclined to raise questions and let the characters tell the stories," he explains.

"One of the biggest problems was dealing with language. There is an incredible variance of language and dialogue. There are scenes in which only Russian and Hawaiian are spoken. There's a woman with a very uptight Biblical speech pattern, a woman who speaks some Italian, and contemporary pidgin."

Writing the story of the Irish sailor required researching old Irish plays and the jargon of 19th century whalers. Attempting to recreate believable mid-19th century Hawaiian whaling port pidgin was another challenge.

"There are some terms in Pukui's Hawaiian dictionary that are archaic, and others that are based on English words, and that was a consideration. The woman who did the Russian translation actually used some archaic Russian from the period. I've gotten a lot of help and I hope it sounds right but there's certainly room for people to say, 'That doesn't sound like my uncle.' "

"Island Skin Songs" comes with the advisory that "some scenes contain strong language and nudity." O'Malley suggests that those who come because of the nudity will be disappointed. So will anyone with a knee-jerk disapproval of nudity or four-letter words in theater.

"It would be possible to do it without (visible nudity) but exotification and the visceral connection in the scenes of contact of the exotic skin in both directions is the underpinning of the whole play. It's not just the young Hawaiian girl in 1804, it's also the modern white male. People will come into the play with an idea of how they may feel about how the nudity is going to be. What I'm hoping is that they'll be surprised and it'll be different.


Island Skin Songs

Bullet What: Five love stories by Sean T.C. O'Malley

Bullet When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays, Jan. 7-Feb. 7

Bullet Where: Kumu Kahua Theatre

Bullet Cost: $5-$15

Bullet Call: 536-4441

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