An Expressionistic Living Room, at Kumu Kahua Theatre
Many in the local theatre world know Will Kahele as a director and actor. Kahele’s most recent turn, as a playwright, is unquestionably a wild success. Kahele wrote The Living Room under the astute and experienced guidance of Tammy Baker, during one of the playwriting classes Kumu Kahua Theatre often holds (in their highly admirable attempts to gather more local stories from the people of Hawaii and give local artists a voice in a theatre world overwhelmingly dominated by plays from the West End and Broadway.) This is theatre at its best: by for and about a specific community, speaking directly to its audience with witty, character-specific dialogue, a strong narrative structure and highly creative expressionistic elements.
The Living Room follows Eli (played with humor, charisma and nuance by Daryl Bonilla) as he struggles with suicidal thoughts and sometimes loving, sometimes abusive memories of his parents and grandparents. These memories are cleverly embodied by actors playing various roles—according to the whim’s of Eli’s often faulty recollections. For example, Eli’s mother died when he was very young: his memory of her is therefore the most unstable and radical—sometimes she appears as a fairy straight out of an archetypal fetishized childhood fantasy—sometimes she appears as an Audrey Hepburn-esque character (with an affected accent serving to underscore the changeability of her image in his mind.)
The convention that we, the audience, are seeing what Eli sees—a skewed subjective reality—is a brilliant way of creating dramatic tension and action, as the past literally battles the present in the form of characters onstage. When Eli gets the help he needs, and starts seeing a psychiatrist, the characters of his mother, grandmothers and grandfather fade away. In the second half of the play, we are left only with reality—the satisfying reality of a burgeoning romantic relationship between Eli and the policeman who accidentally shot Eli. This dramatic shift—from the subjective world of Eli to Reality—is neatly tied together with a fairy tale theme. (The fairy tale theme creates closure, engenders the definitive sense of a mythic, emotional journey, and relates metaphorically on multiple levels to the notion of childhood—a central element in the narrative.)
Although the costumes and some of the staging involving the set left something to be desired, the writing, directing and acting are all solidly superb. Will Ha’o, Aaron Miko, Natalie Dawn, Kahana Ho and Aimee Nelson play with exquisite detail and commitment, skillfully moving the audience from laughter to tears.
If the acting, directing and writing are not enough reason to see The Living Room, consider that non-realistic plays are rarely staged in Hawaii. Kumu Kahua Theatre is again boldly giving Hawaii audiences the chance to experience an alternate, yet crucial style of theatre. Also consider that the process of engaging with art which is symbolic and thus perhaps not in your realm of experience has many personal benefits (improved analytical skills, critical thinking, to name a few!)
Should Shakespeare have written, “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace, from day to day to the last syllable of recorded time, and all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death” or “my wife is dead, life sucks”?
Sometimes art enlightens and challenges us; something not easily accessed can be worth the mental effort. Thank you Will Kahele, Harry Wong and Kumu Kahua Theatre for giving Hawaii audiences this unique opportunity to step out of our proverbial boxes and into a dimension of madness, memory, and new perspectives.
Written by Taurie Kinoshita.