The Ulua Theater has just three rows of folding chairs. The action takes place directly in front of the first row.

Black-box theater is
up close, personal

Jason Scott Lee’s intimate
theater can offer audiences
an emotional experience

Volcano, Big Island » Yasuko Takahara Schlather stands within an arm's length of the audience, crying, ranting angrily that her roommate and friend is dead.

She's so close that those in the first row can feel her breath between sobs, see tiny spots of tears collect in the corner of an eye, cling to the lower lid, then slide slowly down her cheek.

'Burn This'

Lanford Wilson's two-act drama, directed by Jason Scott Lee and Justina Mattos

Onstage: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, closing Aug. 27

Place: Ulua Theater, 19-4325 Haunani Road, Volcano Village

Tickets: $25, available at CD Wizard in Hilo, Mele Kai Music in Kona, Byrd's Audio in Waimea and the Volcano Store on Haunani Road

Synopsis: The setting is a Manhattan loft shared by Anna, a young dancer-choreographer, and her two gay roommates -- Anna's collaborator, Robby, just killed in a boating accident, and Larry, a world-weary advertising executive. Anna is recovering from Robby's death, comforted by her boyfriend, Burton, when Robby's older brother, Pale, comes to collect his brother's belongings and transforms the lives of everyone in the loft.

The cast

Ken Elliott (Larry): A Compton, Calif., native, Elliott, 41, has been a member of the prestigious Actors' Gang Theatre in Hollywood for nine years. He was last seen in the award-winning productions "Self-Defense," based on the Aileen Wournos story, and originated the role of Robert Earl Hayes in "The Exonerated," which he will reprise in the 2006 U.S. Tour.

Yasuko Takahara Schlather (Anna): A native of Japan who now calls Makawao, Maui, home, Schlather, 35, has co-starred in several television shows and can also be seen in Disney's "Golden Dreams" at the California Adventure Park. She lived in Los Angeles. She's also appeared in "Hae Lu" (2001), directed by Kuang Lee. Her TV credits include CBS's "Martial Law."

Mark L. Lewis (Burton): A Wyoming native currently living in Los Angeles, Lewis, 30, has just completed the U.S. tour of "Embedded" with the Actors' Gang and can be seen in the soon-to-be-released films "States Evidence" and "L.A. D.J." He is also a technical director for the Actors' Gang in Los Angeles.

Jason Scott Lee (Pale)

It is discomforting to be so close to such raw feelings, yet the actress, who plays Anna in "Burn This" at the new Ulua Theater in Volcano, apparently doesn't notice.

By the conclusion of the in-your-face, punch-in-the gut, 135-minute production, the audience feels as emotionally rung as the actors.

This is "black-box theater" -- held in an unadorned performance space, usually a large, square room with black walls and no raised stage.

Such spaces, easily built and maintained, are usually home to performances with limited sets and lighting effects but with an intimate focus on story, writing and performances.

And so it is with actor Jason Scott Lee's 45-seat Ulua Theater, set deep within the Volcano rain forest. Last week's "Burn This" premiere was the culmination of a five-year dream for Lee. "I want to bring quality, professional plays to the community with stories that affect people emotionally in a very, very intimate setting."

Mission accomplished.

Black-box theaters became popular in the 1960s and 1970s, a thriving time for low-cost experimental theater. Lee patterned Ulua after a venue in Los Angeles' Los Feliz district, where the wannabe actor studied with Sal Romeo.

"Black-box allows more pure theater to be explored with the most human and least technical elements being in focus," Lee says.

Audiences enter Ulua under a pitched, overhanging roof. At its pinnacle is mounted a 100-pound ulua, which Lee caught off of South Point after a 40-minute battle. He wants Ulua Theater performances to be like his experience catching the fish: The excitement of the first strike, followed by the hard, sweaty work to reel it in, is like bringing a play to fruition. "The ulua is the king of the reef, and that is the theater I want: something dynamic and forceful."

The "Burn This" stage is a living room and kitchen. The couch, chairs, table, stove, sink, dishes, utensils and refrigerator are used by the cast to lounge, cook and eat.

"This is the first time in my career that I've actually lived onstage," says Mark L. Lewis, who plays Burton in the play.

The cast of four in Ulua's first play consists of Ken Elliott...

On the second floor, the actors sleep in two loft spaces connected by a wooden walkway.

Grace C. Lee, executive director of the New York-based Second Generation theater group, made the trip from New York because the concept of combining a theater and working farm "fascinated me."

Second Generation provided a $2,000 grant to Lee's Kilauea Productions for "Burn This."

"Pu Mu is a place where people can hone their craft, a safe haven for artists who can try experimental things," Grace Lee said. "People feel safe about making mistakes. It's amazing to work in the field, then bring that energy into the theater."

During the day, the actors farm, usually mulching and weeding in Pu Mu's two taro patches.

Actor Ken Elliott, a longtime friend of Lee's, wanted to learn farming techniques. "An actor has always got to work, but here I have the luxury of working on a farm and being in a play at the same time. Since we actually live on our stage ... we're constantly talking about the play, the lines, the story. You don't have that pleasure in the city."

Lee and a carpenter friend spent about two years building Ulua Theater, which only recently was connected to electricity. The cast had been rehearsing by candlelight.

Schlather lived in Los Angeles for 14 years until opting for a change in lifestyle. Since arriving in Volcano in early June with other cast members, Schlather says she's physically and psychologically stronger.

"Here I'm always in the field during the day," she said. "When I was in a play in L.A., I was so emotional and felt so high I didn't know where to put my energy, so I just hung around the theater. Here I go outside and work, and I perform better."

Lewis compared living, working and performing at Pu Mu to being an astronaut. "It's rare and random to be allowed to visit such a sacred place."

...and, from left, Jason Scott Lee on the couch, Mark L. Lewis and Yasuko Takahara Schlather.

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