Friday, December 10
The Real ‘Aloha’ For the People…
Let’s get a few givens out of the way: Sarah Rudinoff can move, she can groove and she can make an audience howl with the mere twitch of an eyebrow…and she knows it. No doubt, Sarah is savvy performer and she knows how to capture a laugh but The Last State was most compelling in its exploration of personal history and the cultural history of Hawaii.
One of the character’s in The Last State is a greeter at Wal-mart. Each customer gets an “Aloha” welcome but that’s just for the tourists. The real "Aloha" is reserved for those who belong. The Hawaiian islands represent an escapist, romantic fantasy-vacations and the reality of the people who live outside of the high-rise timeshare compounds and cannot afford the luxuries of Honolulu’s boutiques.
Born and raised in Hawaii, Sarah was, nonetheless, always on the outside. Having been shuttled back and forth between her divorced parents, the young Sarah becomes preoccupied with being accepted as a native Hawaiian – or, at the very least, not haole - a ‘white foreigner’. Her family’s ragtag existence in the less developed areas of Kauai matched that of the people who lived in the area for generations, but their skin color set them apart. The child Sarah does her best to ignore her difference.
Sarah contrasts her experiences growing up on the idyllic Hawaiian Islands with the state’s often untold and troubling colonial past. The Last State opens with Rudinoff channeling Hawaii’s last monarch, Queen Liliuokalani and establishes the underlying parallel between the native Hawaiian people’s lost sovereignty and her own struggle between independence and belonging.
As a parable of colonial subjugation and a child’s experience of divorce, The Last State bears a resemblance to the Heart of Darkness. Perhaps this is the after-effect of colonial rule: once the natives are subdued and the multi-nationals move in, what happens to the dream of sovereignty and the flight into untouched beauty? Hawaii has always been a bastion for those trynig to get away - to get away from the job, from the haunting memories of war and from the suffocating attachments to one's life.
Sarah’s storytelling is seductive and disarming. Her humor and charm drive the piece forward but there is an undertow or frustration and melancholy in all of the characters. Perhaps this is all the more true of her own childhood experiences. The native Hawaiians take pride in their heritage but when forced to contend with the wealth and projected fantasies of the tourists (the worst of the haoles), we are aware of the people’s powerlessness. And what of a little girl thinking herself into being something that she is not? Despite the tenacity of her desire, the actual state of being authentic slipped away with the conscious choice to 'go native'.
To everyone but herself, the young Sarah convinced herself that she was not haole and she spent years pursuing the a self-assigned belonging. Watching the adult’s performance on stage, I was struck that she has continued indulge her protean nature. Sarah’s gift of characterization allows her to believably disappear into another’s life. The Last State’s most compelling moments come not in the reporting of her own story but when Sarah settles into another’s skin. Sarah charmed and beguiled her audience with her well-crafted piece, but I left with more questions than answers. I would guess that, to a person, we took in the tale as if it were the thick sea air. I could not help but to wonder about the story that was not told – I want to know more about the reluctant child and the way she absorbed her environment. All told, Rudinoff is more like Conrad’s narrator, Marlow, than the haunted Kurtz. She is a guide through the idyllic islands and the rough terrain of not belonging.
Throughout the show, Sarah weaves in reminiscences of her dad's house and the predictable haole world where there were "solid things". However, she is clearly tempted by the instability of her mother's life and the instability of a place that can be destroyed by natural events (hurricanes, volcanoes) at any time. Sarah left the islands, but I get the sense that she is just as much a foreigner on the mainland as in Hawaii. The Last State closes with a story of being on a beach – a moment of reminiscence for someone who has left a home of peace (and tumult) behind. She lulled us into feeling sand between our toes, feel the warmth, the waves, the moonlight, the closeness of the car's leather seat, but the nostalgia is painful to bear. The desire to return home, to the last - or the first - state is overwhelming but there is a gnawing knowledge that not only can life not be what it was, it never was what she (or you, or I) wanted it to be.
Thursday, December 9
Sarah Rudinoff -- The Last State
Sarah Rudinoff -- The Last State
A one-person show about a childhood in an exotic locale has the potential to sag with treacly sentiment, and Sarah Rudinoff begins her show singing a soft Hawaiian melody and dancing delicately down a diagonal strip of sand---then she turns to face the audience and turns on her full implacable force of being, cutting through potential sogginess with the sharp edge of her actual childhood: Divorce, juvenile delinquency, and racial prejudice, as well as the complex political machinations that have made Hawaii a curious fusion of paradise and snakepit.
There's maybe a little too much; the show has yet to coalesce into a whole greater than the sum of its parts, though that may just be opening night roughness---and what parts don't fit would be hard to say, as it does all contribute to a mosaic of sorts. The voiceovers of congressional debates about the messy and brutal makings of statehood take us out of Rudinoff's own story, but those debates broaden the show's point of view, as well as framing the splits in Rudinoff's life with the political schisms that shape her environment. Rudinoff spends much of the show portraying various characters---a self-satisfied hotelier, a tough-talking Hawaiian girl, an Oklahoma transplant---whose energetic stories are also more about the layers of life on the islands than Rudinoff's own life. I wanted more of Rudinoff's own life, particularly as she was able to describe it with a rich mix of humor, sadness, and hope---but I wouldn't have wanted to lose any of these voices, particularly since Rudinoff's portrayals have a juicy vitality.
So it's a potent cocktail, and maybe by the time you see it---for there's no question you should; don't make the mistake of taking indigenous Seattle talent for granted---it will have blended into a more unified mix.
But even if it hasn't, it's a whole lot of chewy, invigorating, funny, and lovely stuff, ably directed by Sheila Daniels, with musical support from John Ackermann and visual elements provided by Susannah Anderson, John DeShazo, and Patti West.
Last things first
I wanted to start this by saying, "Last State is a one-woman show with a very large cast", but that sounds like a comment on Ms. Rudinoff's dimensions rather than the show's. The cast includes half a dozen actors' recorded voiceovers, Sarah's family appearing in projected photos and Super 8 movies, and John Ackerman's excellent live musical accompaniment (guitar, ukelele, miscellaneous other instruments and -- briefly -- Joni Mitchell imitation). Not to mention that Sarah Rudinoff serially inhabits close to a dozen characters, several of them portrayed at more than one point in their lives.
You've probably heard that Last State is about growing up haole in Kauai, which is partly true, but while Sarah's own younger and present-day selves constitute the point of view for most of this piece, she actually figures as a relatively minor character in her own drama. A detectable part of the piece is about her relationship with her mother -- or lack thereof: "I wanted to forget my mother. She wanted to forget me" -- but her parents and siblings are among the few characters her performance never portrays; she briefly plays her teenage self, and, mainly as a narrator, her present-day self, but most of the time she channels people from her life on Kauai: a friend's Chinese mother, her dad's burned-out and angry army buddy, Bambi with whom she did community service time as a teenager after stealing a car, the manager of the Cocoa Palms Hotel where her mother cocktailed, a pot-smoking homesteading older woman recently arrived from the mainland. Repeatedly, she inhabits various characters metamorphosing in a moment from old to young, from beautiful to plain, from innocent to jaded.
Much of the piece is about Hawaii itself and about the imperialism that deliberately disfranchised the native Hawaiians, turned a Pacific Island kingdom into a too-artificial simulacrum of paradise, and pretends that in Hawaii the problem of race has been solved. There are about half a dozen quite effective scenes in which dramatized voiceover presents the words of Queen Liliuokalani, or a U.S. Senate floor debate, while Rudinoff aquits herself surprisingly well doing Hawaiian dance.
This last sounds like the piece would come off as didactic, or zany, or self-indulgent, or annoyingly postmodern, but it does not. In the hands of a lesser actress there are so many directions in which such a complex piece could fail. In Rudinoff's hands, it succeeds totally (not to slight director Sheila Daniels or the tech crew: there are nearly no missteps in this piece, and that is not just the actress/writer's doing).
As for "growing up haole in Kauai": as the piece makes clear, Rudinoff is in many ways "Hawaiian" enough to identify with the Hawaiian sovereignty movement, but utterly aware that no ethnic Hawaiian will ever quite consider her Hawaiian. Early on on the piece she affectingly sings a Hawaiian-language song, speaks a goodly hunk of pidgin, and performs a Hawaiian dance. Frontloading this material works well: combined with her obviously non-Hawaiian self (though sometimes when she goes into character she manages even to make her face look Hawaiian) this establishes her as a figure who may be on the border of Hawaiian society, but who is nonetheless deeply rooted in Hawaii. One can see her pride that she successfully dared to show up at school on the last day of term, "Kill Haole Day", and her simultaneous annoyance and acceptance that nowadays when in Hawaii she is just one more mainlander until she hits up with an old friend and then she is Sarah, from here.
My only quibble is with one aspect of the set: the image of rolling surf in the background, while sometimes well-used, is distracting at other times and as a projection surface for slides and film it mostly just makes them hard to watch. If this doubling of image was supposed to produce some sort of synergistic effect, it was lost on me. On the other hand, the 25-foot strip of sand that variously stands for Hawaii itself, for an endless beach, or even at one point for a tight rope, is such a fine piece of set design that I'll pretty much forgive the backdrop.
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