An Epic Conclusion
Kumu Kahua Theatre, in its 49th season, is known for producing plays by, for, and about Hawai'i. It begins this season by mounting the conclusion of Alani Apioʻs KĀMAU trilogy, UA PAU (IT IS FINISHED, OVER, DESTROYED). Apio’s first installment of the saga, KĀMAU, was produced in 1994 and the second, KĀMAU AʻE, was produced in 1998. Time and time again, Apio has been able to weave and write raw, visceral, and honest depictions of a family that tears itself apart because of the system and laws that Hawai'i operates under, and UA PAU is no different. Harry Wong III, the director of UA PAU, has been tied to the KĀMAU trilogy for quite some time as he directed the first iterations of the previous two installments of the trilogy (the plays have been remounted over the years under different directors since). In his director’s note, he makes it clear that the production stands on its own. By approaching the play sui generis (of its own kind), he and his team examined what made Apio’s UA PAU unique, and started there. Therefore, if you were unable to catch KĀMAU or KĀMAU AʻE, do not fret. Apio is graceful and purposeful with his exposition, and if this is your first time meeting the characters or the third/fourth/fifth, you will not get lost and will still be able to feel the weight and power of Apio’s play.
Stevie-Girl (Maile Kapuaʻala) has just completed grad school on the mainland. Her adoptive father, Alika Kealoha (Charles Timtim) pays for her plane ticket (first class!) home to Oahu, and gets caught red-handed in his office in a compromising position with one of his colleagues, Mona (Leleaʻe “Buffy” Kahalepuna-Wong) when Stevie-Girl stops by to visit him first thing off the plane in an effort to thank him for the kind gesture. At home, she sees her mother, Lisa (Annie Lokomaikaʻi Lipscomb) and Alika drifting farther and farther apart, moving closer towards divorce. Her uncle, Michael “Maiko” Mahekona (Wil Kahele), proves to be a grounding source of solace for Stevie-Girl as he continues to fish and carve wood on his small property located on the grounds that the hotel Alika works for. Alikaʻs Boss (Daryl Bonilla) continues to pressure Alika to squeeze Michael off of his property. Throughout all of this, we continue to center on Stevie-Girl and Alika, whose relationship is contentious. Alika is torn between providing food and material wealth for his family and his kuleana to his family, culture, and his people; it haunts him, and what further clouds his judgement is a mixture of prescription pills he keeps swallowing like candy followed by alcohol. Stevie-Girl is haunted by the memory of her biological father, George (Kirk A. Lapilio Jr.), who had killed himself before she was born because he was convinced he could not provide for Lisa and Stevie-Girl. George following Stevie-Girl around, and Stevie-Girl learning more and more about her family’s tumultuous past, gets her thinking about her own identity, and who she is as a person, and where is her place amidst her mother, her father, her uncle, and her own culture as a Hawaiian.
Wong’s staging of UA PAU is crafted with purpose and intent. Apio’s writing is layered, cutting through the story and drama of today with hard-hitting flashbacks of the past and voices are often cast from offstage to resemble the words people say we repeat in our heads time and time again. Wong brings this to life wonderfully, executing some of the smoothest and tightest flashback transitions I have ever seen in a long time. Also in terms of the “voices”, with the actors placed at strategic points behind the audience and around the theatre, the voices have different qualities, lending a layered and textured delivery that makes the scenes like that all the more chilling.
In terms of performances, Bonilla puts the pressure on as the Boss but as the Dad that took care of Michael, George, and Alika he’s a powerhouse; unrelenting in his rage and wit, and waning enough to show that he was raised this way and only wants the best for the boys and for them to be the strongest they can be, he is an excellent reminder of the dark and troubled past the boys have come from. Kahalepuna-Wong balances out Bonilla’s performance as Mom by being firm yet tender, listening to the boys with a warm and gracious heart that also wants them to be strong enough to take care of themselves; as Mona, she goes toe-to-toe with Stevie-Girl in a memorable scene and while she is well-connected to her culture, she is selfish and her personality has you questioning why Alika is cheating on Lisa with her, of all people. Lipscomb’s Lisa is relatable and down-to-earth when we first meet her (taking the news of her husband’s actions with as much dignity as she can), but even she has secrets, and when the truth comes out Lipscomb does not hold back in a very human and vulnerable performance. As the memory of George, Lapilio floats between moments of clarity. When he is grounded or when he is in a flashback, he deals with the difficult emotions George had to deal with power and tumult, as he should. However, these memories are also haunting Stevie, and there are several times where he’s taunting and “haunting” Stevie-Girl that brings him out of the world of the play; his vocal mannerisms and playful nature don’t read as the nagging thought of her late father but rather as an impish companion to her, clowning around until the next serious beat.
Kahele’s Michael is portrayed both as his older, present self and in his younger years, and Kahele plays both well, never making a caricature of either. In fact, between the three boys, Kahele’s Michael is fascinating to watch because of Kahele’s skill at capturing who Michael was during his youth and who he is now, and letting that springboard his performance, lending to a very grounded and well-rounded character. Timtim does this well too, to be sure, but the true strength in Timtim’s performance lies in his guilt and burden that he carries with Alika. Alika is clearly suffering from stress and mental disorders, to the point of triggering temper tantrums and self-harm. Alika also cares deeply for those he loves, and those who he has a loyalty to, and is willing to grind himself down to the bone in order to appease as much people as he can. Timtim is heartbreakingly endearing in this respect, slowly and purposefully showing us all the sides of Alika so that we may understand him all the more. Apio’s writing doesn’t suggest we forgive Alika, but only asks that we see where he’s coming from. Finally, Kapuaʻala is a tour de force throughout the performance. Event after event affects Stevie-Girl, and Kapuaʻala is nuanced and vulnerable throughout in one of the most honest performances I have seen in a while. The closer she gets to finding out her family’s secrets, the more convoluted her life seems to get, and both positive and negative Kapuaʻala flexes her emotional range to dazzling effect. Apio wrote Stevie-Girl as the central protagonist within UA PAU, and she is the audience’s tether through her family’s pilikia. When she is anxious, the audience is anxious; when she is wounded, the audience feels her pain. When she is calm, and finds small bits of happiness, the audience is relieved. Apio wrote a wonderfully complex character in Stevie-Girl as she returns home, and Kapuaʻala truly brings her off the page and into real life.
Iris Kim’s costume design functions well, capturing the different characters’ aesthetics and stories in one glance. Brian Lee Sackett’s lighting gently leads you throughout the play, highlighting critical moments, and it pairs well with Paul Yau’s set design. Cast in a sea of fish nets, the three stone platforms that the cast play on are fractured and split- a symbol for how the story of this family plays out.
Prior to watching this production, I have only seen KĀMAU AʻE. However, that did not stop me from understanding or enjoying the raw drama that Apio has written and it definitely won’t stop you if you do not know anything about the previous two plays. UA PAU raises serious questions about culture, identity, gentrification, and about the future of Hawaiians in their own land. It demands that you look at these characters, where you may see people you know (or yourself), and asks if it sits right with you. Does it? Does it not? Why? Great theatre moves, inspires, and questions, much like this production does. UA PAU (IT IS FINISHED, OVER, DESTROYED) is not done yet, running Thursdays-Sundays through September 22. For tickets, click here.