Under the title Hawaii Nei, author Paul Handy has crafted two plays, both set in the picturesque Pacific islands of Hawaii. One is a revival of sorts; the other is a new companion piece. The new play which opens the dual bill offers a romantic and compelling glimpse at an unusual meeting which grows into a complex love affair.
The older play, a repeat from an earlier Fringe Festival, strikes one as more heavy-handed, filled as it is with dense exposition, as if the the play were a class assignment that required the plot to be a two character play but also include at least 100 facts about the disintegration of native Hawaiian culture and home rule in the late 1800s.
Let’s start with the opener, The Highest Point of Heaven. What a lovely story and one that was unknown to me. Late in life, the Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson embarked on an odyssey through the Pacific Rim seeking help for his longtime lung ailments; the warm, breezy island air was a balm to his failing health. The writer of Kidnapped, Treasure Island, and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde stopped off in Hawaii among his ports of call, to the open hospitality of the royal family. During this visit, Stevenson – or RLS – made the acquaintance of the heir to the Hawaiian crown, Princess Ka?iulani. (For the record, her full name was Victoria Kaw?kiu Ka?iulani Lunalilo Kalaninuiahilapalapa Cleghorn.)
Their meeting and budding affection for each other, within the backdrop of the idyllic island paradise and the stress from forces that wished to take over Hawaii, is perhaps a lesser known chapter in Hawaii’s history. Yet Handy finds the simple beauty of an unrequited love between the married Scottish author and the fetching Hawaiian princess. Ka?iulani’s father was also from Scotland (and the last Royal Governor of Hawaii), which began their affinity with each other. The princess, also a fan of RLS’s Kidnapped, is nearly starstruck. Likewise, RLS is immediately smitten by the beauty, intelligence and spirit of the member of Hawaiian royalty, and determined to protect her island home at all costs.
As Ka?iulani, Stefany Pesta portrays the bewitching princess as earnest, gentle, artistic and worldly-wise beyond her years. As RLS, Daniel Lakin compliments Pesta and makes for a fitting scene partner; he captures the writer’s troubled soul, physical ailments, strong Scottish burr, and wide-eyed affection to Ka?iulani. The two actors capture the longing between their characters while handling the judicious exposition of the newer script. Handy tempers the interesting historical points, emphasizing the connection between the star-crossed (almost) lovers. His dialogue is handled with skill and truthfulness by the two gifted actors.
By contrast, Cry for the Gods, set four years after the Stevenson-Ka?iulani encounter, is more densely packed with facts, intertwined with the terse dialogue assigned to two different characters. The play concerns Queen Lili’uokalani – aunt of the princess – attempting to stave off opposition to native Hawaiian rule. Handy clearly has the utmost admiration for Queen Lili’uokalani, one of the most revered figures in the history of the Kingdom of Hawaii. But the play is presented as a memory of the ghost of John L. Stevens, pivotal to the end of the queen’s reign and the beginning of a new era for Hawaii. Stevens was sent by President Benjamin Harrison as the United States Minister to the Kingdom of Hawaii, beginning in 1883 and later accused of conspiring to overthrow the Queen.
Audiences might not know much about the conflict between the Hawaiian monarchy and the United States going in to Cry for the Gods, but it will certainly know more at the play’s end. Before the events of the play, there was the “Bayonet Constitution” incident when King David Kal?kaua was forced to sign a new constitution, severely reducing the king’s power and establishing a parliament of sorts for Hawaii. This took place in 1887. By 1893, the king had died and his sister Lili’uokalani was the new figurehead ruler, hanging on by a thread.
The play is a protracted confrontation between the put-upon queen and the fierce imperialist Stevens. While squeezing in a textbook full of exposition, Handy presents the two figures not unlike two modern political opposites, both having unmovable positions, feverishly expressing their own point of view while doing very little listening.
Rocelyn Halili turns in a bold performance as Queen Lili’uokalani, controlled, proud, and seething with indignation. Her posture and regal bearing practically cry out from the stage. As her adversary, Tom Kearney dwells on the imperious while slipping into an almost snarling villain in his characterization of Stevens. The actors are well-matched, but Halili edges Kearney out for subtlety.
The Highest Point of Heaven and Cry for the Gods make fitting companion pieces, two different flavors of a political dish. As individual plays, I would pin a five rating on The Highest Point of Heaven, but I can only muster a three for Cry for the Gods, which averages out to a solid four. As a teacher, I would say that’s a high “B” and a firm effort with room to improve for Hawaii Nei.
Hawaii Nei by Paul Handy . Director: Clare Shaffer . Featuring: Stefany Pesta, Daniel Lakin, Rocelyn Halili, and Tom Kearney. Stage manager: Cynthia Miller . Presented at Capital Fringe 2018 . Reviewed by Jeff Walker.