Last week while appearing on KAOI radio, Jessica Chernicki of "The Miracle Worker" commented, "Dust off the old pump."
She was humorously referencing the cliche of William Gibson's well-worn play. Cliche or not, Chernicki's performance and director Rick Scheideman's vision are both unconventional takes on an extremely familiar script. The style of this Maui OnStage production is best described as returning to its roots. Originally written for television, "The Miracle Worker" is portrayed by its Maui cast much in the same manner that method actors work in film. Scenes are intimate, acting beats are subtle, blocking choices are natural and audiences must pay close attention.
When the Keller family argues around the dining table, they talk over each other, real bacon and eggs are eaten, plates and forks clank, and all the while, Helen (Pua Kepler), wails loudly.
The family of Helen Keller in Maui OnStage’s current production of “The Miracle Worker” stars Pua Kepler as Helen (from left), along with Francis Tau‘a, Zeb Mehring, Jessica Chernicki and Noel Overbay-Smit.
JACK GRACE photo
Pua Kepler starring as Helen Keller and Jessica Chernicki as Annie Sullivan deliver powerful, lump-in-your-throat performances in Maui OnStage’s play, “The Miracle Worker,” which is running weekends through May 25 (except Saturday) at the Historic Iao Theater in Wailuku.
JACK GRACE photo
That's how a real family eats and argues, with mouths full. However, not every line is clearly enunciated. On the night I attended, several audience members moved in closer to the action during scene changes.
Director Scheideman's pacing is also unique. The play sails along quickly, partly as a result of purposefully stepping on lines during argumentative conversation. This "Miracle Worker" runs under two hours, including intermission.
In addition, much of the introspective scene work is artistically lit by designer Ricky Jones. When it is after dark, so is the stage. When Annie Sullivan (Chernicki) is haunted by her rat-infested, asylum past, dim color sets the tone. Depending upon where you are sitting, a post may block an actor's face and characters may contemplatively speak to their feet, or turn their backs to the audience. Not unlike the real-life Keller and Sullivan, the audience will need to focus carefully to appreciate the nuances of the production.
The performances are equally unconventional and the accents are impeccable. Noel Overbay-Smit, as Kate Keller, and Laura Cole, as Aunt Ev, offer lush, multilayered, passive-aggressive and accurate portrayals of post-Antebellum Southern belles, reminiscent of Tennessee Williams and Margaret Mitchell. Francis Tau'a, as Captain Keller, plays the role flustered, exhausted and easily swayed by the ladies, as opposed to the typical dictatorial Captain Keller. Zeb Mehring, as James Keller, gives a marvelous performance in what can sometimes be a throwaway role. His James is not an insolent, angst-filled obstacle of the family, but a forlorn teen crying out for approval -and an unlikely ally to Sullivan's work. Chernicki's Maui debut is compelling. What she brings is fearlessness toward condemnation. Her Annie has many faults. She is stubborn, rude and she has an Irish temper. If great acting is behaving truthfully and presenting emotion and character flaws as real, than Chernicki achieves that. I overheard more than one patron comment during the intermission that the character made them "uncomfortable," and her teaching was "borderline child abuse."
Kepler, as Helen, gives a triumphant performance. It is stirring, endearing and even funny with complete character commitment. Although Kepler has just one muddled line in the entire show, she commands your attention in every scene. I applaud the casting of a young Annie and Helen. It would have been easy to cast a 35-year-old actress and a teenager for these roles, but historically accurate casting makes the production all the more potent.
At show's end, when Helen truly grasps that "a thing has a name" and sign language is not a "finger game," many a sniffle and gasp is heard. That last words Sullivan teaches Keller are "I love you," and the two kisses Kepler gives Chernicki, after signing "teacher" is quite the lump-in-throat moment. Even if you can't always see and hear all of the action, like Helen, you will feel the power of this production in your heart.
* Written by William Gibson, "The Miracle Worker" by Maui OnStage is directed by Rick Scheideman. The play continues weekends through May 25. Performances are 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays at the Historic Iao Theater (except for this Saturday. There will be a signed show for the hearing impaired on Sunday, May 25. Cost is from $17 to $28. For tickets, call 242-6969 or order online at www.mauionstage.com.
The Baldwin High School Performing Arts Learning Center and Baldwin Theatre Guild will present the eighth annual Variety Show Extravaganza this weekend only. In this one-of-a-kind show production, 22 Baldwin students come together to create an entirely original take with singing, dancing and skits.
"The students always come up with a wide range of ideas -whether it be Broadway, film, movies or TV," says Linda Carnevale, director. "This show always promises to be totally new, fun and an entertaining production. We have some really great original skits and dances choreographed by the students."
Some of this year's offerings will include a spoof on "American Idol," a hand-rhythm movement piece, a choreographed waltz, salsa dance and a slow-motion fight over a bottle of water. In addition, several students will step up to perform both solo and duet vocal numbers.
Alumni have returned to perform every year since the variety show tradition began, and this year Jordyn Clarke (class of 2013) returns to perform in a dance piece with TJ Idemoto.
"Every year for the past three years, TJ and Jordyn did a duet dance," Carnevale shares. "Since TJ is graduating this year, he wanted to have this one final dance with her." Idemoto will be joining the cast of "Legally Blonde: the Musical" this summer. "The kids really look forward to it," Carnevale adds. "I want the students to have an opportunity to write and choreograph their own pieces. Some students never get an opportunity to sing or be in a specialty dance number, like a salsa or waltz, because the shows we do don't always have that. Having a variety show allows the kids to take a plunge and try something new."
* Don't miss Baldwin's 8th annual Variety Show Extravaganza directed by Linda Carnevale. Performances are 7:30 p.m. Friday and Sunday, and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday in Loudon
Mini-Theatre at back of the Baldwin High School campus. Cost is $8 for adults, $7 for seniors and $6 for students 17 and younger. Tickets are available at the box office only one hour prior to show.
Seabury Hall Performing Arts presents the 19th annual "Side Shows," a festival of one-act plays.
This year's crop of plays includes pieces by professional contemporary playwrights and Seabury student playwrights, Jordan Priest and Abby Stoner. Adult directors Tina Kailiponi, Vinnie Linares and Scott Winham will be joined by student directors Celina Bekins, Zoe Harrelson, Zeb Mehring, Cassidy Ross and Taka Tsutsui.
* Performances are 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday in the A'ali'ikuhonua Creative Arts Center on Seabury's campus in Makawao. Admission is free, donations welcomed. Call 573-1257 or visit www.seaburyhall.org.
Hawai'i Opera Theatre presents "The Mikado" by W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan June 18 at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center. This romp through the mythical and nonsensical fantasy world of The Mikado, performed by Hawaii Symphony Orchestra and international and local stars is set in Japan. This satire on English society weaves both cultures together with humorous lyrics and elaborate plot twists. Nanki-Poo, son of the emperor, flees his home to avoid an arranged marriage to an older woman, only to fall in love with the beautiful Yum-Yum, who is betrothed to Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner.
* "The Mikado" will be performed at 7:30 p.m. June 18 at the MACC. Cost is from $27 to $97 (plus fees); half-price for kids younger than 12. Call 242-7469 or visit www.mauiarts.org.