Open Circle Theater
Both through April 10
AT THE START OF PU'UHONUA, LIGHTS come up on Nelda (Maria Glanz, the script's author), an Idaho farm wife, as she mixes up a batch of blood pudding. As Nelda makes the food, she comes out with a stream of humorous observations--which Glanz times to the steps in her recipe--and an isolated and brutal reality is revealed beneath Nelda's life of sunny domesticity. Later, Nelda stumbles on a Japanese internment camp in her back yard, where she finds refuge in a relationship with a male prisoner (a Hawaiian native of Japanese descent, who teaches her the term Pu'uhonua, or "place of refuge").
An air of threat hangs over the action (meticulously directed by Elizabeth Klobe), setting us up for a weighty, potentially shocking conclusion; clearly Glanz means to reflect the damage of war in this intimate story. She slips, however: the prisoner escapes the camp and joins the army, Nelda escapes her abuser and hops a bus for home. End of story. Despite its complex trappings, Pu'uhonua just another a version of the familiar fable that Hollywood likes to mine, in which two unlikely comrades fight a common oppressor. These days, that ground's better covered in the nightly news.
Michael Robinson's one-act comedy Return to Crusoe's Island, also directed by Klobe, tackles violence on equally damning terms. Crusoe's island is also a place of refuge--a stripped-down world in which to safely examine the origins of oppression--but where Pu'uhonua leans on self-conscious props, Return to Crusoe's Island carries the action cleanly.
This theatrically spare production distills Defoe's Robinson Crusoe to its subtext, focusing on the oppressor's (civilization's) complicated relationship with the oppressed (nature). Robinson astutely plays Crusoe the colonizer, manipulating the natural world to support delusions of divinity. Friday (perfectly portrayed by Kat Tait), on the other hand, serves as a multi-purpose projection, as she is shaped and reshaped through Crusoe's lens. Friday directly challenges Crusoe in a number of guises: she is the brown-skinned Other, she is the "uncivilized savage," she is all things man traditionally associates with woman: servitude, sex, motherhood, nature. However, when Crusoe attempts to reinvent nature by taking Mother out of it altogether, his fantasy falls into ruin. Robinson, Tait, and Klobe apply a light touch to Robinson Crusoe, and the show is a worthy footnote to Defoe's tale.