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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, April 26, 2002

Fantasy circus has message for the planet

By Wayne Harada
Advertiser Entertainment Editor

The gravity-defying skink (Christine Berwin), representing one of many endangered species, is part of "Eco-Circus," a production opening tonight at Kennedy Theatre.

Gregory Yamamoto The Honolulu Advertiser


A play by Karen Yamamoto Hackler coinciding with

Earth Day events

7:30 p.m. today and Saturday; also at 7:30 p.m. May 4 and 2 p.m. May 5

Kennedy Theatre

$10 general; $9 seniors, military, faculty and staff; $7 youths and non-UH-Manoa students; $4 UH students with ID

956-7655, 526-4400

"Eco-Circus," premiering tonight at Kennedy Theatre, is a riot of color and imagination. It is a circus without clowns or a tent; it is inhabited by quirky and adorable denizens with a common fate: They're all endangered species.

It borrows from "Cirque du Soleil" (fanciful costumes), taps elements from kabuki (a hanamichi ramp), employs "Lion King" tactics (critters roam into or appear from the audience). It's also part Muppets (actors as animals).

"We are all endangered species," said Karen Yamamoto Hackler, who wrote and shaped the script that was originally conceived by Peggy Hunt, University of Hawai'i-Manoa faculty member, along with her M.F.A. graduate students in theater (Jennifer Butler, Kristy Miller, Melissa Teodoro, Debra Jean Zwicker and Mark Branner).

Hackler, a noted storyteller and playwright, was drawn to this environmental/ecological theatrical specimen "because of Peggy's passion for endangered species."

Hunt's concept was to mount a "circus" with a message, since she had a professional clown (Branner) among her students.

"But by the time we conceptualized the show, Mark had left for the Mainland," said Yamamoto. "So we had a circus — but no clown."

No matter.

In this circus, a giant condor (Thomas Isao Morinaka), in the role of a circus ringmaster, introduces each of the species, with a Hawaiian fruit bat (Christoph Ravenlock) providing musical interludes. The stage set includes a bedroom, where three youngsters (played by Mitchell Goo, Kevin Pacheco and Claudie Elmore) engage in patter about the need to save the world's diminishing species. The bedroom gives way to a circus "ring," complete with a floor design that resembles the zodiac.

"You might say it's part cult, with a little bit of a Harry Potter edge," said Hunt.

"And it's a world where animals are not directed by humans," said Yamamoto.

"And there's nothing traditional done by the animals," said Hunt.

With facial masks, head masks, faux fur and slinky unitards, a galaxy of intriguing performing animals take turns in center ring:

  • • A skink (Christine Berwin) glides on and off vertical netting and a trapeze, its tail a majestic idiosyncrasy. Shades of Spider-Man.
  • Giant kangaroo rats (Christopher Steven Quiocho, Mika Watanabe, Marlon Apio) jump rope — wearing Converse shoes. Ewoks in disguise?
  • Lanky cranes (Jennifer Butler, Malia Bowlby), about 10 feet high, flap their wings with towering grace. Who needs Michael Jordan?
  • Stilt-walking gorillas (Butler, Bowlby) frolic with the three kids. No monkeyshines here.
  • Red-eyed green frogs (Kellee Blanchard, Kelly DeRosario, Yoshika Miyachi and Quiocho) do a contagious limbo dance. Move over, Kermit.
  • Hawaiian pueo (Claudia Elmore, Yoshika Miyachi) — innocent keiki variety — clumsily romp to and fro, finding joy in a swing ride.
  • Koala bears (Nina Darnowsky, Elmore) engage in a game of seesaw and "catch."
  • Humuhumunukunukuapua'a (Watanabe, Apio, Darnowsky) "swim" aboard scooters.

Hunt is a seasoned storyteller who combines masks, sometimes puppets, and dance in her tales. She enlisted her New York friend, Lily Pink, to do some masks, but costume designer Sandra Finney also created a few, along with about 35 different costumes worn by the cast of 20, many playing double roles.

"We have some Vanna Whites, too," said Hunt, about several actors who look like Potter-inspired magicians; they help move props on and off stage.

Designer Joseph Dodd also added special elements to the production, including a remote-control rollaway nightstand cube that scurries off stage all by itself.

Fusing fantasy with an ecological message was a natural for Hackler, who encountered a book that featured a condor, usually a menacing figure, in a somewhat friendly and curious pose.

"That was our ringmaster," she said.