The entire cast dances and hulas out the door of the building, the last one beckoning the audience to follow. As everyone follows the music, you see several rows of metal chairs placed to face the park, minimally lit. Everyone taking their seats, it’s hard to overlook the ripples of rainstreaked clouds, painted by the beams of the setting sun, cascading into Lake Michigan, which you now see only as the Hawaiian pacific. A girl in copiously ripped jeans walks into view along the oceanside path, looks out onto the water, and wraps her hair into tight ponytail with speed and discipline. Complete and total immersion: you are truly a fly on the wall.
On Island Time
All of act one is not your traditional sit back and ponder play experience. As soon as you pull back the black curtain covering the door into the Berger Park Cultural Center Coach House, you are thrown head over heels into a full blown Hawaiian luau. Max may come up to you to introduce herself, proclaim you best friends, and point out the characters, all partying and interacting with everyone in the room. Uncle Makana and Ma are playing ukulele and drums in a band on some steps, Honey Girl is behind the bar serving authentic Hawaiian brown ale brewed in Kona (with a hint of coconut), but Honey and Ma aren’t talking right now so watch out! It’s these wonderfully stitched together introductions and foreshadowing that make this production so fascinating. You get to meet and interact with the characters, whether it be by playing cards with two buggas under the pavillion strung with lights, or learn how to hula from the best, and truly feel connected to every single one before the party is over and the real play begins.
“No Worries Beef Curry”
The entire play is in Hawaiian Pidgin English, which was made an official language in Hawaii only in 2015. Created as a communication method between English and Hawaiian speaking workers on sugarcane plantations, the language has flourished, with influences from Hawaiian, English, Cantonese, and Portuguese. Those who are worried that this will make the play hard to understand, don’t be. The language only adds to the immersion and makes the play distinctly realistic, thanks to Hannah Ii-Epstein’s sharp playwriting. The main focus of the more standard play second act is Hawaiian meth culture, or in Pidgin, batu. As the play goes on, you see how batu has affected Honey Girl’s relationship with Ma and the rest of her family, and her struggles in figuring out how to handle it in her own life.
Nothing Without a Company Brings Organic Drama
The entire ensemble is extremely strong, and in this viewer’s humble opinion, one of the main reasons to see this show, led bravely by Rachel Slavick. It should be noted that every actor in the production is in the luau in the first act, and is improvising as their character the entire time with audience members, seamlessly and effortlessly. Max was played by understudy this particular evening, Heather Jencks, and her energy and welcoming spirit were highlights of the night. Marie Tredway’s steadfast but tortured Honey Girl goes on a moving journey throughout the show, motivated powerfully by the years-long addiction of her Ma, played with acumen by Lelea’e Kahalepuna-Wong, who originated the role in Hawaii. So many moments in the show were fueled the environment, like Kahalepuna-Wong yelling at the wind for making it hard to light her pipe, or Scott Hanada giving a hang-loose to some actual passerby while pushing his cart in the background. Real-life interaction mixed with touching portrayals of Hawaiian meth culture make this production an important story to see, learn about, and even participate in.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read – Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.
Lelea'e “Buffy” Kahalepuna-Wong
Jae K. Renfrow
Ian Voltaire Deanes
Anna Rose Ii-Epstein
Mark J. Bracken Jr.
Val Gerard Garcia Jr.
Thru July 28th
Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 7pm
Berger Park Cultural Center Coach House
6205 N. Sheridan Road