Nan Asuncion, right, rehearses with Will Ha'o in a garage they use a studio as Mary James Lewis and Karen Yamamoto Hackler observe in the background.

Going for
heart and soul

Lo'i Theater trio wants
integrity and meaning
in their productions

Karen Yamamoto Hackler, Will Ha'o and Nan Asuncion might not be bound by blood, but they are closer than many family members.

Lo'i Theater

Tickets: Available at the door 45 minutes prior to show time. Cost is $8 for adults; $5 for those over 65 and under 17.

Call: 988-2215


Wednesday: Manoa Valley Church, 2728 Huapala St., 7 p.m.

Friday: First Presbyterian Church Hale Ohana Social Hall, 1822 Keeaumoku St., 10 a.m. and 7:30 p.m.

Aug. 17: Central Union Church Parish Hall, 1660 S. Beretania St., 10 a.m.; also at 4 and 7 p.m. Aug. 21

Aug. 20; McKinley High School Auditorium, 7:30 p.m.

Aug. 22: Hawaii Okinawa Center, 94-587 Ukee St., 7 p.m.

Aug. 27: Church of the Crossroads Weaver Hall, 1212 University Ave., 10 a.m. and 7:30 p.m.

Aug. 29: Ho'ala School, 311 Lehua St. in Wahiawa, 6 p.m. Bring beach chairs, towels or blankets to picnic on the grassy lawn from 5 p.m. Ho'ala third and fourth graders will perform "Tutu's Dance" prior to the performance.

"We are colleagues, friends and practically siblings," said Yamamoto Hackler, founder of Lo'i Theater. "We are bound not only by friendship, but with a common purpose: to do theater that has heart, that has soul -- to do work with integrity and meaning.

"We wanted to create affordable and accessible theater. It brings families together; it brings strangers together."

Toward that end the little group has transformed Yamamoto Hackler's garage into a rehearsal hall complete with wardrobe, sets and props. The troupe's inaugural season kicks off this month, and guests are encouraged to stay after performances for a "talk story" session.

Yamamoto Hackler chose Ha'o and Asuncion to bring life to her one-act plays.

"They were already acquainted, so they could plunge in, explore and be the characters," she said.

Ha'o and Asuncion have been friends for more than 30 years, since they were students of James Nakamoto in McKinley High School's drama program. Nakamoto is directing them again in "The Lines Are Drawn." The production's composer and musician is Wayne Paakaula, another McKinley theater alumnus.

"Everyone involved in this project lives and breathes theater in a wonderful, egoless way," said Yamamoto Hackler. The group -- including stage manager Mary James Lewis, set designer Dan Gelbmann and lighting designer Gerald Kawaoka -- also has a tendency to laugh their way through rehearsals, she says.

"Golden Light: Celebrating Our Elders" is the theme for Lo'i Theater's first season. The first production, "The Lines Are Drawn," performed in pidgin, demonstrates individuals' inability to effectively express their feelings toward loved ones.

In the production, Mrs. Y (Asuncion) has lived with her husband's (Ha'o) penchant for boundaries that continually split their lives into his and hers, including the board that divides their bed in two. The last straw is when he paints a line down the middle of their garage because he is aggravated about the way she parks the car. But, beneath all the bickering is strong a foundation of love and caring, Yamamoto Hackler said.

"You don't see too many love stories about senior citizens," said Ha'o. "It's heartfelt, with no sex involved. It's all about how we take little things for granted."

"There are so many things in the piece that people can relate to -- they see themselves or their grandparents. It sparks a memory," said Asuncion.

Many elderly couples who have seen the production walk away hand in hand, "like high schoolers," after the performance, according to Ha'o.

"The play helps us put ourselves back in touch with our feelings. It gives us a chance to re-examine our own relationships," said Yamamoto Hackler.

Her second Lo'i piece, "At the Grave," to be performed in spring, is also about an older couple, a widow and widower who meet at the graves of their spouses at Manoa Chinese Cemetery.

Both works were inspired by walks around Manoa. Yamamoto Hackler actually saw a garage with a line drawn down its center. Other plays dealing with the elderly community are on the back burner, she said.

"It's my way of bringing people back to life. So many friends and relatives have died in the past eight years; this is our way of honoring and celebrating them," said Yamamoto Hackler, who's taking a proactive approach to bringing the stories into communities.

Nan Asuncion, bottom, Karen Yamamoto Hackler, Mary James Lewis, and Will Ha'o take a break.

Small, portable "bare-bones" sets were made for traveling to church and school spaces. "We needed to keep it simple," said Yamamoto Hackler. "With only four of us to set things up, we needed to make props interchangeable."

So, a bench doubles as a car, and the couple's bed is later changed into a hospital bed. "We ask the audience to use their imagination," she said. "Everybody wears several hats."

The wardrobe was also pieced together from trips to Savers, Ross stores and donations. "Jim Nakamoto loaned us some of his old aloha shirts. Somebody loaned us some hospital gowns," Yamamoto Hackler said.

"The director even loaned me his knee brace," Ha'o said. "You can tell it's old -- it's all bus' up."

"All three of us are so committed to sharing this play with the community that we've made sacrifices to make it happen," said Yamamoto Hackler. "When we toured the Big Island with the staged reading of the play, the three of us did the tour without pay. I was able to give Will and Nan per diem and housing only.

"We told people that tour was our gift to the community. Nan told me she had only two requirements: a bed every night and pork chops at Manago Hotel. I lived up to both requirements," Yamamoto Hackler said.

"The pork chops were ono," said Asuncion. "I was a happy camper."

"She was so excited, she started eating them without using utensils," Ha'o laughed.

The trio even shared a one-room condo in Kona to be next to the ocean instead of opting for two bargain rooms with neither view nor sunlight.

Nan Asuncion, right, gets into character with Will Ha'o.

The women gave Ha'o the bed because he had just traveled from New York City, where he has lived for nearly 30 years.

In Wailea, a friend provided separate rooms for all three at her bed-and-breakfast inn. "We were still lying on the living room floor talking story, even when we were exhausted and had our own rooms," said Asuncion.

FOR A SHORT time, Lo'i Theater was a company without a name, but they found it in a taro patch at Konea O Kukui Gardens in North Kohala, created to teach children more about Hawaiian culture. There, in the taro patch, the tiny troupe found themselves in the company of chickens and guinea hens and an inspirational setting.

"As we said our last lines, the sun went down," said Ha'o. "Everything worked magically."

"We have taken this play to places so charming and filled with community spirit and a sense of aloha that felt we were performing for family," Yamamoto Hackler said.

"It's like performing for all our aunties and uncles," Ha'o said. "People brought offerings of bananas, avocados and honey to say thanks."

"Part of the wonder of the evolution of this play is the number of guardian angels who have adopted us," Yamamoto Hackler said. "At each site we'll perform at -- whether it's a church, community center, senior center or retirement home -- there has been someone who has embraced our project and really gone to bat for it.

"It's very intimate theater. The audience members come up with their red noses at the end of the show. It's so precious."

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