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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, March 7, 2008

'Rumi' fails to do justice to famed poet's work

By Joseph T. Rozmiarek
Special to The Advertiser


11 p.m. today and tomorrow

Earle Ernst Lab Theatre, UH-Manoa

Tickets: $10


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Thirteenth-century Persian poetry does not transpose well into the late-night slot at the Earle Ernst Lab Theatre at the University of Hawai'i, despite the longevity and international popularity of its author.

A teacher and poet, Jalaluddin Rumi's works are widely read in the original and in translation. He believed that music, poetry and dancing were all paths to God, and is credited with founding the ritual dance adopted by the "whirling dervishes." His inclusive poetry devoted to peace and harmony is not limited by time or culture and has been widely sung, recorded and read in the United States.

The script titled simply "Rumi" is a collection of stories translated by Coleman Barks, and adapted for the stage by Paul Sills. So, while one might think that the hardest cultural bridge-building already has been done, it still falls to director Terri Large Madden and a young and inexperienced cast to make the material immediately accessible to a casual audience.

That's a daunting task, not fully realized in this experimental production.

A shoestring budget keeps the actors in drab sweat suits with only minimal props and set pieces. Recorded music makes an ethnic nod and the entrance and exit dancing is perfunctory with, sadly, no whirling dervishes in sight.

But the major difficulty with the production is that it fails to sufficiently enliven its story theater format. The cast of seven actors trade off speaking the narration and take various roles in the multiple playlets. But too often, articulation suffers and many of the words are garbled. And with a dozen short stories in a one-hour show, the action is always starting and stopping and characters change before they are developed.

And sometimes, the staging is simply too artlessly literal to be effective.

In "Sexual Urgency" a soldier is entrusted to bring back a bride for his Caliph, but falls in love with her himself. Their animated intercourse is interrupted by a wild lion, but the soldier has the virility to dispatch the beast and return to the woman with his passion intact.

By contrast, when the Caliph finally gets the girl, he is unable to perform. He gives her back to the soldier, not wishing to incur future harm by committing a spontaneous rash act.

So, somewhere among the thrashing and the slashing and the tussling and thrusting, a moral emerges. But we're never quite sure whether it's meant to be straightforward, funny, or both at the same time.

The same applies to parrots that play dead to escape their cages or a stupid fish that gets caught and eaten.

Plainly, we need more help from the director and actors to sort things out. We need things to watch that are interesting without being blatantly literal, dialogue that lets the words sing like poetry, integrated music and dance, and an exotic wrapping.

Otherwise, if this is your first introduction to Rumi, you might well wonder why Madonna ever sang his love poems.

Joseph T. Rozmiarek has reviewed theater performances in Hawai'i since 1973.