Star-Bulletin Features

"What Keeps Me Here" opens with a monologue, "The Sermon," with Megan Patton.

2 extraordinary
shows highlight UH’s
‘What Keeps Me Here’

By John Berger

The University of Hawaii-Manoa "Late Night Theatre" series has been the source of many clever and imaginative productions over the past 10 years. It has also spawned some simplistic committee work ("The Adventures of Paka and Lolo," for one) and seen an occasional descent into self-indulgence as in a show in which a bare-chested man pranced around wearing feminine makeup and the bottom half of a ballerina's outfit with no substantive dramatic purpose beyond showing the world that this is how he likes to prance around.

"What Keeps Me Here," an anthology of five dramatic sketches assembled and directed by Sammie Choy, falls for the most part on the positive side of the scale. The production reaffirms the importance of the "Late Night Theatre" program as an incubator for budding actors, writers and directors, even though her expressed intention of providing "a fierce contemplation on American analogues after 9/11" is not fully achieved.

Delete the self-imposed definition of this show being about the causes or responses to the events of Sept. 11, and four of the five pieces demonstrate how outside forces can control your life and limit your options.

Playwright Matt Pelfrey's "Drive Angry" tracks the seemingly pointless existence of two young men who pepper their inane conversation with obscenities and crude humor as they cruise the freeway. One of the young men has cancer. Why? Who knows?

Time is the enemy in Sheri Wilner's "Labor Day," a vignette inspired by the old-fashioned rule that one doesn't wear white between Labor Day and Memorial Day. It's a rule that freaks the heck out of the hostess of a "white party" who watches her white-clad guests consume white food and beverages while playing a word game requiring the appropriate use of the word "white."

The others are looking forward to changing into colored clothes, but the hostess (Danel Verdugo) sees this act as evidence of the inescapable passage of time. One season is followed by another, parents age, and kids grow into adults who must find their own way in the world. Death is the inevitable destination. She wants to remain in white.

Wartime uncertainty is the issue as Norman Munoz stars in "Gas," playwright Jose Rivera's eloquent and searing depiction of the psychological ordeal of waiting for a loved one to return from battle. Munoz gives a deep and richly textured performance as a man whose fears for the safely of his clumsy kid brother metamorphose until he admits to rejoicing at the deaths of countless Iraqis he doesn't even know, let alone hate, if their deaths mean that his brother will come home unharmed.

"What Keeps Me Here," originally a prose piece by Rebecca Brown, is presented as a dark and disturbing monologue. A woman sits stiffly. A strap that covers her eyes secures stakes that cover her ears and stab into her shoulders if she raises her hands; the blindfold is so tight that if she opens her eyes, she may not be able to close them. Who knows what might happen if she tries to stand! And so she remains seated, clinging to the hope that her captors will relent.

Emi Fujinami, a standout in Kennedy Theatre's "Main Stage" productions of "The Summer Festival: A Mirror of Osaka" and "Faust II," is painfully convincing as the torture victim trying to make sense of her situation. Neither her identity nor that of her tormentors is explained, but she suffers so piteously, it's hard to resist the urge to step into the story and free her.

Choy's program notes refer directly to the aftermath of Sept. 11 as causing longer wait times at airports. She also registers dismay at the introduction of wartime curtailments on civil rights and "free speech," but outside forces were intruding on the rights of individual American citizens long before the attacks.

Grant Okubo and Kevin Pacheco are the freeway assassins in "Drive Angry." Megan Patton opens the show with "The Sermon," a David Mamet monologue that adds nothing of substance to the experience.

It's the exceptional solo performances of Munoz and Fujinami, and the plot twist that provides that dramatic payoff in "Drive Angry," that makes Choy's anthology worth gambling on as late-night entertainment for those who can handle high levels of crude language.

'What Keeps Me Here'

Where: Ernst Lab Theatre, University of Hawaii at Manoa

When: 11 p.m. today

Tickets: $7 general; $6 for students, seniors, military, and UH faculty and staff; $3 for UHM students w/valid UH ID.

Call: 956-7655.

Note: A "post-mortem" discussion open to all will take place at 5 p.m. on April 3 in Room 101

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