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'La’ieikawai' a cultural and linguistic triumph

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Director Baker said that “Lā‘ieikawai” is one of the most well-known stories in Hawaiian culture.

Lā‘ieikawai,” the first Hawaiian language play on Kennedy Theatre Mainstage, makes history, educates and entertains, all in one go. 

As the first play to be performed entirely in the Hawaiian language on the Kennedy Theatre Mainstage made “Lā‘ieikawai” impressive enough. The play is also warm, funny and captivating, suitable even for those who do not speak a word of Hawaiian.

Audiences are treated to a traditional oli (chant) before the play begins, then are swept into the mythical world of Lā‘ieikawai, a princess known as “the Beauty of Paliuli.” She goes through a string of would-be suitors, but the most significant bonds she makes are with the Maile sisters, the relatives of a failed suitor who has left them behind. The sisters stay with Lā‘ieikawai through hardship and betrayal, eventually engineering a happy ending for all who deserve it.

As someone who has only previously attended plays in English, I found the Hawaiian language to be quite a barrier in the beginning. There were jokes that I did not get, sly innuendos that I felt had everyone else in the theater laughing except me. I would encourage non-Hawaiian speakers to take a long look at the synopsis beforehand, to at least have a minor understanding of the plot. Despite the language barrier, I began to be drawn into the play. It’s very similar to a foreign-language opera in that one does not need to know every single word in order to appreciate the whole. The actors were incredibly expressive, every gesture telling a story. As the show went on, it became easier to pick out certain words and their meanings, which certainly helped with my understanding of the story.

But “Lā‘ieikawai” is so much more than the story. Hula (dance), mele (song/Hawaiian poetry), oli (chant), hula ki’i (puppetry) and Hawaiian martial arts all come together to create a production that is unique. The hula and mele were enchanting, the costumes, sets and props casting a mystical, dreamlike spell over the entire production. I enjoyed the hula sequences in particular, because they communicated concepts far better than simple dialogue could. One doesn’t need to understand every aspect of the play in order to recognize that this is a fantastic labor of love, a stunning work of Hawaiian culture that has been brought to the Kennedy stage.

The story itself is mythical, featuring gods and their mortal descendants navigating love and relationships. The visuals certainly contribute to the atmospheric nature of the play, with the set design a symbolic recreation of Hawai‘i’s natural environment. I enjoyed the costumes, as they were a combination of traditional Hawaiian garb and modern materials. 

The acting was engaging, particularly from Ioane Goodhue as ‘Aiwohikupua, a proud suitor, and Makana Kane Kuahiwinui as Kahalaomapuana, his youngest sister. Kuahiwinui delivered her lines with an energy and passion that was refreshing, and her comic timing was so good that I could catch some of the jokes simply through body language.

One drawback to the play is its running time. It was difficult to sit through three hours of a performance only relying on context clues and the brief synopsis. I understand why the interpretive dance sequences were included in the production, but they could probably have been edited down a bit in favor of the more traditional hula. However, I felt that the play overall was entertaining, and even non-Hawaiian speakers could get much out of their experience.

I’ve lived in Hawai‘i my entire life, but aside from a few Hawaiian language classes in middle school and the Hawaiian Studies requirement in college, I didn’t have much exposure to the language. That’s why “Lā‘ieikawaii” is so important. It has the potential to introduce so many people to the Hawaiian culture, and when we live in Hawai‘i, this isn’t just a passing interest. It is necessary to understand the people who were here before us in these islands, who had stories, music and dance just as “Western” civilizations did. “Lā‘ieikawai” is a revitalization of the Hawaiian culture and language, combining old traditions with that of the theater. The production is entertaining, educational and recommended.

This review is based off of the Feb. 20 performance.