“It had to get dramatic, didn’t it?”
“Was it not already?” asked Eleanor, as they walked carefully across the astroturf lining the ground in the Berger Park Coach House. The space, a tight blackbox in the center of a park on the edge of Lake Michigan, felt tightly cramped when oriented in a traditional proscenium setting.
“Well, yeah, it was, but I had hope it would stay upbeat about it,” Dania mused. “It wasn’t like Batu, last year. That was dramatic the whole way through. This one felt like it suddenly decided to be a drama halfwa––”
“Hey, hey, 100-yard-rule, no discussion here,” Gwen warned. As with Not One Batu, the prequel to Pakalolo Sweet produced a year earlier by Nothing Without A Company, the opening night was attended by both director Rachel Slavick and playwright Hannah Ii-Epstein. While Ii-Epstein had regaled audiences fourteen months ago with her own poetry and music during the immersive first act, here she had a more subdued presence: sitting in the corner of the set, teaching the audience to make leis.
Dania, heeding Gwen’s warning, shuffled her way out of the theatre. She gripped a can of Hawaiian Sun Pineapple Orange juice –– a cheap drink she’d gotten hooked on during her trip to O’ahu, and which she was shocked to find up for sale here on the mainland.
“Did you ever find out whether the immersive first act was something they did at Kumu Kahua as well?” asked Eleanor, as soon as she was out of earshot of the theatre.
“I never did,” Gwen said. “I assumed not last year. Now I don’t really know. I don’t suppose Native Hawaiian audiences would need the immersion to understand the world of the play.”
“Well, not everyone is a weed-growing karaoke singer,” Dania pointed out. “And besides, without that first act, the show is, what, an hour long?”
“It did seem pretty short,” Eleanor said. “Shorter than Batu felt, but it’s a more streamlined narrative.”
“If we keep comparing it to Batu, we’ll never judge it fairly,” Gwen chided.
Eleanor brushed this off. “How can we avoid it?” she asked. “They’re two halves of the same story. They performed in the same space with the same rehearsal team. They share a character –– and the actor who played him!”
“What a trip that’s gotta be for…” Dania searched in her program. “Scott Hanada, as Uncle Makana. To return to this role a year later, with an entirely different story.”
“He had a little more to do in Batu than here, if I remember correctly,” Gwen said. “I was keeping a better eye out for the unvoiced character moments in the preshow this time around. It’s oozing with personality, everything they do during that unscripted segment.”
“He never sang karaoke in Batu,” said Dania.
“Music was such an enormous part of the story here,” Eleanor said. “Everyone got a karaoke feature at some point. And then the reprise on ‘ukulele in the final scene?”
“I spent the whole show considering the purpose of the music,” Gwen said. “It wasn’t a musical –– the songs weren’t metaphors for anything going on in the story. But they were purposeful. Uncle Makana singing a song from Moana makes sense, as his relationship with the tourists and Hawaiian cultural exchange is well-documented.”
“What about the woman…what was her name? With the plan to give tourists an ‘authentic experience?'”
“Kahe!” Eleanor read. “Victoria Wang. I liked her a lot. She seemed like the only one who wasn’t getting pulled down by the weight of the drama. I mean, it was obviously weighing on her, but she stayed chipper throughout.”
“Yeah, I don’t remember her song, but it wasn’t related at all to Hawai’i,” Dania said. “So maybe she’s supposed to be someone who’s divorced from an authentic Hawaiian history…”
“We need to be careful about using the word ‘authentic’ when discussing this, or anything,” said Gwen. “It’s such a nebulous, prickly word.”
“The language was authen––accurate, I suppose,” said Eleanor, dodging. “I imagine Ii-Epstein didn’t have to research the Hawaiian Pidgin English. Although I do appreciate the glossary in the program.”
“That glossary got in the way for me,” Dania said. “I kept checking it when words came up I didn’t know. And half of them weren’t there!”
“If you don’t speak it, there’s nuance you’re going to miss. That’s just a fact of the script.” Gwen recalled the play’s first few minutes, during which her ear acclimated to Ii-Epstein’s language –– and did reach, at a certain point, and impasse. “We have to remember this wasn’t written for the mainland.”
“But it’s here now, isn’t it?” Eleanor asked. “So was Batu. Clearly, Nothing Without A Company believes in the benefit of bringing the story to Chicago, or they wouldn’t have committed to a two-play series of Native Hawaiian theatre.”
“I still enjoyed the play,” Gwen said. “I recall being more enthralled by Batu than by this one, but I think the script here is –– well, Dania already said it.”
Dania looked up from a sip of Hawaiian Sun. “What did I say?”
“Batu was written more like a traditional drama, with secrets that get revealed as we learn about each character’s motivations,” explained Gwen. “Pakalolo Sweet feels like an ensemble piece, an immersive experience where the takeaway is more about feeling for the people than feeling for their particular plot arcs.”
“We had the discussion last year about whether the show was about ‘community more than characters,'” Eleanor recalled. “Having seen both, I think Ii-Epstein’s strength as a writer is her ability to make the plays distinctly about both, without lessening either. Whatever you walk away caring about, the characters or the island or both –– it’s a success.”
“It was strange, then,” Gwen continued, “that Slavick’s direction for Pakalolo was so much more traditional than Batu was. I don’t think the option of doing this play in the park outside even exists. You need that set behind them.”
“Do you?” asked Dania. “You could have staged it outside, with the real doorway. It would’ve been possible.”
“I wonder what response to Batu was, generally,” said Eleanor. “We loved it, as I remember. But I wonder if other audiences were as receptive to its strange charms.”
“I could tell the audience during the immersive first act was split down the middle,” Gwen said. “The adventurous people going onstage to interact with the cast, versus the ones who came in, sat down, and waited 45-minutes for ‘the real play’ to start.”
“What a disconnected group,” Eleanor said. Her hand moved, instinctively, to the lei around her neck, made under the playwright’s watchful guidance.
“I think…” Dania began. “Okay, I know we should stop comparing it to Batu…”
“Why? They’re companion pieces.”
“Okay, but the thing is,” Dania said, “I just though Batu was stronger overall. More sold storyline, more immersive staging…”
“I not certain that ‘stronger’ is the right word to use, Dania,” Gwen said. “Perhaps ‘cohesive’ I could support. It felt like there was less dead air in Batu, because things were moving so fast. It’s a drama. Here, the pace is a lot slower, more contemplative.”
“Yeah, but I’m not sure that worked,” said Dania. “I found myself waiting for the shoe to drop –– and it did, obviously, like two-thirds of the way into the play. But before that…there’s just a lot in the play that feel like planting with minimal payoff.”
“My perspective on it,” Eleanor began, “and I say this fully aware that immersive and slow-moving art is my jam, and not everyone else’s…”
“…I’d argue that the relative emptiness of the first half was intentional, to set a tone of casual bemusement to drama. So, when the drama strikes hard later, it’s all the more impactful.”
“It’s the unvoiced moments in the preshow,” Gwen added. “The whole play is filled with them. Taken at face value, and it’s a slow-moving dramedy about Hawaiian weed farmers. Pick up on all the subtlety––”
“And it’s brilliant, I guess,” Dania said, looking askance. “I guess I didn’t get it, whatever.”
“Well, don’t get salty,” Eleanor said. “Any response to the art is valid. Always remember with this one that there’s another population that the play was really made for.”
“My view is that the script for Pakalolo Sweet is deeper and subtler than Not One Batu,” Gwen said. “But, perhaps, the production of Batu at Nothing Without A Company brought more up to the surface than their Pakalolo did. I can’t speak for the Kumu Kahua productions, but perhaps the balance was different there.”
“Almost certainly,” Eleanor said. “It’s a different company.”
“It’s still excellent that good Hawaiian actors in Chicago get to work on a story where they play their own ethnicity,” Dania offered. “As much as the ending sort of came out of nowhere for me, I do think Dean Santiago did a good job of playing it. And I liked Sharon Pasia, as the pregnant wife.”
“She felt like the only person keeping the business running smoothly,” Gwen said. “There’s an understated power to that role, and I’d be interested in seeing it again and making note of how characters orbit around her.”
“I was going to praise the play for eschewing relationship drama, and allowing the married couple to make it through the play without their bond being tested,” Eleanor smirked. “I was going to compliment it on that.”
“Eh, some tropes exist everywhere in the world,” Dania said.
“It’s a hard act to top, following up another play that we went into with no expectations,” Eleanor considered. “Batu was this shot out of nowhere, and I loved it. Now, following a year of distance, and our own trip to the islands, and continued research and dramaturgy on Hawaiian and Polynesian artists…”
“We’re probably overthinking all of it,” Dania said. “How is it, as a play? Isolated from everything else?”
“You can’t isolate the play from everything else,” said Gwen. “Everything else is what gives it an identity.”
“Well, if we take any theme away from the entire Batu/Pakalolo duology…”
“It’s not a bad message to take away,” Dania said. “About any art.”
Image Credit: The cast and crew of Pakalolo Sweet / Photo: Rachel Cherie Blomstrom