The house lights rose – as much as they could in the already illuminated space – just as Eleanor was already standing. The patter of rain against the concrete step could be heard through the open door, though she noted that it had been stronger during the performance than now.
“We should bolt,” Eleanor said to Dania and Gwen, still seated. Gwen might not have even heard, her gaze fixed intently on the author’s note.
“Hey,” Eleanor repeated, tapping Gwen’s shoulder.
“We should go,” Eleanor said, pulling on her raincoat. “The rain’s in a stopping period, we can get to the train unsoaked.”
“Okay, I want to say hi to Hannah first, one moment,” Gwen said, standing and straightening her collar.
“Do you know her?” asked Dania.
“No, but I want to tell her she did a good job,” Gwen added as she walked across the room.
Dania stood as well, her back sore from the wooden chair.
“I should have grabbed that one before you,” she said, looking longingly at the mesh camping chair Eleanor had just stood up from.
“Well, you had to keep messing with Braddah’s card game,” Eleanor said. She flipped her hood up, glancing out the window. “That’s what you get.”
Eleanor and Dania prepared for the light rain outside as Gwen introduced herself to Hannah Ii-Epstein, the author of Not One Batu. One of the co-artistic directors of Nothing Without A Company, Ii-Epstein had brought the play – and one of its actors, Lelea’e “Buffy” Kahalepuna-Wong – from Hawai’i for its Chicago premiere. At the preview the girls attended, she had also performed her own poetry during the evening’s immersive first act.
Waiting by the door for Gwen to finish complimenting and subtly networking (“She’s gonna get her business cards out, I swear,” Dania wagered), Eleanor took another glance at the room. The Berger Park Coach House was not where the evening should have taken place, but the rain had forced the outdoor second act into the same indoor venue for the first. The space was cozy, inviting – a wooden picnic table beneath a garlanded roof, with a collection of chalkboard walls and surf books lining the perimeter of the room. The cast, who had taken almost no time to get out of costume, were already milling about, thanking their audience and emotionally returning from the play’s concussive finale.
Gwen thanked Ii-Epstein a final time before returning to the others, and the trio exited the building into a downpour.
“Run for the house!” Dania shouted, sprinting towards the front building of Berger Park, which sported an overhang. Dashing through the rain, they reached the small dry patch out of the rain, and waited for the front to pass.
“I really wish we could have seen it outside,” Dania muttered. “With the ocean behind it.”
“Yeah, the rain sucks,” Eleanor groaned. Recollecting the first act, however, her eyes lit up. “I remember during that opening, I was facing towards the water. You can see it outside the window behind everyone – it really looked like the Pacific Ocean.”
“It’s an impressive effect,” Gwen agreed. “I don’t know if Nothing Without A Company typically does their shows in this space, but it’s an ideal find for a play that takes place at the ocean’s edge.”
“It’s also just so small,” Dania continued. “Like, yeah, having it be outside probably would be nice. But I sorta liked that it was all stuck into this house. I know it’s supposed to be outside, but…y’know, theatre. It’s a thing, I can pretend.”
“It felt like I was actually in Hawai’i, right?” Eleanor continued. “More than the play taking place there. I don’t know, maybe it’s just the situation, but it felt like the theatre itself was in Hawai’i. I guess that can happen when you have an entire first act that’s based around making it feel like Hawai’i – okay, now that I say it out loud…” Eleanor crossed her arms. “I guess it was intentional.”
“Did they still have that bit when it was actually performing in Hawai’i, though?” Dania asked. “I mean, they’d know what it’s like, then.”
“It seems like they added it for the Chicago production,” Gwen answered. “Hannah mentioned that it changed a little when they brought it out of the Hawaiian community. Not that they made it more homogenized, but they wanted to give the play the necessary context. The script itself is only the second act, the first part is something the director and the cast came up with.”
“It’s not the same director as the first time, when it was actually in Hawaii? No?”
“No, it’s a local director, Rachel Slavick,” Gwen said. Careful not to let the water drip too much onto the paper, she opened the program to Slavick’s bio. “She’s smart, works around the city a lot. DePaul professor, you know.”
“Sure,” Eleanor said. A moment passed – the rain, lighter, descended – and she amended the agreement with a groan.
“Oh, the ending is just such a gut punch,” Eleanor said, bringing a hand to her temple. “The whole thing is devastating, but the last, like, ten minutes are the worst part.”
“It’s such a character-driven narrative,” Gwen said. “Not much truly happens in the plot. Even the act of purchasing meth is performed straightforwardly, in open dialogue. But the emotional arc is what the audience is so gripped by.”
“The Honey Girl actress was phenomenal,” Eleanor said. “Is she the one they brought in from Hawai’i?”
“No, that’s the woman who played Ma,” Gwen said. She pointed to Kahalepuna-Wong’s name in the program. “Marie Tredway is Honey Girl. I thought she was wonderfully empathetic.”
“She’s also sort of a badass,” Dania added. “Straight-up attacking that dude when he comes in asking for money. That was a great scene.”
“It’s crazy that she was selling drinks during the first act,” Eleanor recalled. “Like, you’d never know the other lives these people have.”
“Well, that’s just true of anyone,” Dania said.
“But yeah,” Dania continued. “The whole first act was strange, looking back on it. You get this whole other side of the characters – like, that’s what I didn’t totally understand, are they supposed to be the same characters in Act One as they are in Act Two? Do they all know each other?”
“I’m…not sure,” Eleanor answered, uncertainty wrinkling her brow. “I’d think it was different characters, but they use the same names. Or at least Braddah did.”
The rain was finally letting up, and a single sunbeam hit the side of the Berger House. Gwen held a hand out and, feeling only the pinpricks of some residual clouds, stepped away from the wall.
“Looks like we’re good to walk,” she said, and led the way towards the train station.
“But yeah, I think it’s more conceptual,” Eleanor continued, as they walked.
“Considering the second act is about interpersonal relationships, maybe that’s what we should take away from the first act,” Gwen mused. “The whole show is so ripe with Polynesian culture and truth, which clearly didn’t get diluted when it transferred from Hawai’i to Chicago. So maybe it’s about a community rather than people.”
Gwen herself disliked this answer the moment it left her mouth. “Then again,” she backtracked. “It is about people. Hm…”
“‘It’s about the Hawaiian meth culture,'” Eleanor read, holding Slavick’s director’s note in front of her. “‘And it’s not.'”
“Precisely,” Gwen said. “I feel like there are so many layers to what it is and isn’t about. You could comb the script and do the Metaphor Mambo with every character. Book Or Mormon Girl is symbolic of the western religious traditions foisted onto Hawai’i, replacing their traditional beliefs.”
“Mister Marine is Pearl Harbor, and the U.S. Government,” Eleanor suggested.
“That feels more on the nose,” Gwen said, shaking off the suggestion. “If you want to go into interpretation conspiracies – I’m talking the Full Harold Bloom – you’d say Toully is American dependence on Hawai’i for commodities, like the tourist trade and meth.”
“I sort of liked Uncle Makana,” Eleanor said. “Something about a character caught between preserving his way of life and culture, but also buying into the B.S. of everything as well. He’s selling towels to tourists, he carts around a speaker playing Israel Kamakawiwo’ole…”
“I heard ‘Hawaiian Supa Man’ play during Act One,” Gwen mentioned.
“It’s a giant mess of being authentic and being a tourist trap,” summed up Dania, “is what you’re saying.”
“No, it’s wholly authentic. That splash of tourism is part of the authentic experience,” Gwen corrected.
“I don’t know,” Eleanor said, kicking the curb as she walked. “Again, I’m thinking about the ending. You just care so much about those people, I want them to succeed.”
“It’s sad, but not entirely disappointing,” Gwen added.
“What do you mean it’s not disappointing?” Dania shouted.
“Okay, let’s rephrase,” Gwen halted. “I meant: the ending does more than just make you feel sad. You get a profound sense of empathy during the show, so when tragedies strike, you’re sad for the characters, not sad because a dab thing happened.”
“I think I understand you,” Eleanor said, sqinting into the sky. The rain clouds were off, but another would come soon. “At least, I think I get it. Emotionally, I mean.”
“Well,” Dania said, her hands fanned out to the sides. “That’s theatre!”
Image Credit: Nothing Without A Company