KO'OLAU (a true story of Kaua’i)
nytheatre.com review by Richard Hinojosa
November 9, 2007
The beauty of Hawaii runs much deeper than its lush forests and scenic beaches. The strengths and stories of its people are an enormous part of the tapestry that make the islands such a paradise. Ko'olau is based on a true story and is, in fact, the only story of the period (late 19th century) written in the Hawaiian language. Tom Lee's production of this story not only reveals its lyrical beauty but, through his rich combination of music, film, and puppet animation, brings out the sadness and strength at its core.
The story, told mostly without words, centers around the plight of a man and his wife and their young son. They seem to be living free and happy but are soon forced to flee. They climb over rugged terrain and finally make it to a serene spot, but their serenity is shattered by pursuing American colonial forces. In a battle he did not start, he shoots at least two of the soldiers. He wins this battle but ultimately he succumbs.
This is a basic synopsis of what I saw just by watching and not reading anything else about the story in the program. I prefer the pure experience of knowing relatively little about the show I'm about to see. As it turns out I misunderstood why the family had to flee. I thought they were running away from the oppression of colonization but actually the man is diagnosed with leprosy and he decides to flee with his family rather than face exile alone. Okay, so I didn't get that and maybe a few other things about the story, but that didn't sour my experience in the slightest.
Creator/director Tom Lee excels at creating beautiful snapshots on stage. He builds these pictures with slow and deliberate actions such as the gentle placing of flowers or the weary plodding of puppets over puppeteers transformed into mountains. Overall, the show moves a bit slow but it does have its peaks. His puppets have simple wood-carved faces with few details. The puppeteers create the details in the puppets' faces through their subtle manipulations.
Puppeteers Matt Acheson, Marina Celander, Frankie Cordero, and Yoko Myoi perform a dance that is precise, nuanced, and abstract. They work very well together. Lee uses the Japanese style of puppetry in which the puppeteers do their work on wheeled carts. However, they don't always use the carts. Sometimes the puppets are floating and sometimes they're more grounded. Lee lends his ingenuity to bits where the performers animate birds and horses with their bare hands and mountains on their backs.
Lee's vision of the power of the human spirit is focused and strengthened by great video and music. Composer Yukio Tsuji's score is rousing and sad. You can feel the rumble of the storm and the groaning of the weary family. Along with musician Bill Ruyle, Tsuji fills the room with every mood called for as well as filling in many sound effects. Given the fact that there are so few words the music really stands out.
The video segments look like psychedelic swatches of cloth painted with grassy earth tones. At other times the camera pushes into a miniature set populated by a cabin and plastic army men. The best part of the video is the live shadow animation going on behind the screen. Performers interact with each other and with set pieces in the video. It's a brilliant way to apply puppetry to film.
Tom Lee's work is very original and reflective. Ko'olau is beautifully conceived and performed. It makes you want to go to Hawaii—not as a tourist but rather as a favorite son.