Star-Bulletin Features

Thursday, January 14, 1999

fine acting drive
powerful 'Songs'

By John Berger
Special to the Star-Bulletin


Plot and performance prove more important than either the skin or the songs in Kumu Kahua's world premiere production of Sean T.C. O'Malley's "Island Skin Songs." That's not necessarily bad. Dramatic theater rarely consists entirely of song and skin.

The first nude scene is honestly staged and delivers the visceral impact intended by the playwright. But it's O'Malley's skill as a storyteller and his light touch when delving into hot-button social issues that makes "Island Skin Songs" an enjoyable and memorable experience.

Five stories are interwoven as O'Malley explores life, love and interracial relationships across 200 years of Hawaiian history. The cast members shift quickly through multiple roles, their characters confronting an assortment of obstacles as they search for love, sex, wealth or spiritual salvation.

The conflict between Christianity and traditional Hawaiian culture is the crux of one encounter. Robert Wilcox's struggle to save Hawaii from alien subversion in 1887 is a subplot in another. Both tales involve controversial issues, but O'Malley is never didactic. He doesn't clumsily define "right" and "wrong" in male-female relationships either.

O'Malley's most effective gambit drives an encounter between a Russian sailor (Jack Boyle) and a Hawaiian woman (Yvette Noelani Fernandez) in 1804. Neither speaks the other's language, yet both attempt to transcend the linguistic and cultural barriers. For instance, how can she let him know that bananas are safe for him to eat but denied to women?

Island residents will probably recognize at least some of the Hawaiian words and none of the Russian. The audience thus shares the experience of trying to understand an unknown language. Boyle and Fernandez are excellent.

Boyle is excellent again as lovelorn Killie Pearse, an Irish sailor in mid-19th century Lahaina. Nara Malia Mio Springer is also great, spitting fire and spewing a spicy Hawaiian-pidgin patois as the wary Hawaiian prostitute whom Killie is determined to marry. (Boyle and Springer also mesh beautifully in the contemporary tale of a Nanakuli tita and her estranged Caucasian husband).

Veteran actress Cheryl Bartlett illuminates the two roles likely to be least popular. As widowed missionary Mercy Whitney, she wrestles with her sexual feelings for a handsome Hawaiian minister (Albert Ueligitone), ultimately suppresses them and dismisses him. As Gina Sobrero Wilcox, Italian wife of the Hawaiian patriot, she initially treats his sister like a servant and takes an instant dislike to Hawaii (Ueligitone is strong in both roles; Springer adds another fine performance as Wilcox's sister).

As for the nudity: The first scene achieves its intended purpose; to say more would spoil its affect.

The one problematic scene involves Bartlett. If she's nude during a nocturnal bathing scene, the audience won't be able to tell. A semi-transparent curtain is pulled around the performance area just before Bartlett slips out of her garment. If the curtain is intended to represent darkness, it should be in place at the start of the scene. If it is used at Bartlett's request, there might be a way to stage the scene so she enters the tub without being seen. The existing staging is distracting and reduces the impact of the actors' work. Did alii bathe outside in 1887 anyway?

Staging is a significant problem in more important ways. Seats to the right of the entrance apparently offer the best view, but even from there sightlines are regularly blocked by cast members' backs or other members of the audience. The fact that the cast can be heard -- and seen -- while changing costumes is another debit.

Kurt Wurmli (lighting), Lisa Ann M. Omoto (costumes) and Darin Au (sound design) effectively add to O'Malley's interesting stories and the work of the talented cast.

Island Skin Songs

bullet On stage: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and2 p.m. Sundays, through Feb. 7
bullet Place: Kumu Kahua Theatre
bullet Tickets: $5-$15
bullet Call: 536-4441

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