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‘The Graduate’ offers unique interpretations of familiar characters

Stage Review

Marsi Smith (from left), Lou Young, Elisha Cullins and Julia Schwentor are shown in a scene from the current Maui OnStage production of “The Graduate” at the HIstoric Iao Theater in Wailuku. ORA SCOTT photo

Terry Johnson’s adaptation of “The Graduate” ventures beyond the well-known 1967 film, allowing the current Maui OnStage production at Iao Theater in Wailuku to be surprisingly rich in nostalgia and supplementary insight on these classic characters.

In the lead, Elisha Cullins dominates the play as Benjamin Braddock. Cullins infrequently leaves the stage throughout the two-hour production and is rarely silent. His Ben bears little resemblance to Dustin Hoffman’s, which is both a challenge and achievement by the young actor. Cullins’ Ben is more frenetic and prone to hasty mood shifts as opposed to sullen introspection. Equally unique is the performance of Marsi Smith as his mature paramour, Mrs. Robinson. Smith’s Robinson, also in contrast to the film, is considerably softer, displaying a more refined, nonchalant manner in her act one scenes.

Every performance in the Rick Scheideman-directed “The Graduate” features unique interpretations. One of particular note is that of David Negaard as Mr. Braddock, Ben’s father. Negaard presents a frequently perplexed but accommodating and patient Braddock, more prone to listen with bewilderment before yielding to his son’s erratic forays. Kimberly Dobson portrays Mrs. Braddock with 1960’s modern sensibility, open and aware to the changing world around her as well as the “disillusionment” of the baby boom generation, which she read about in “Readers Digest.” In contrast Lou Young’s Mr. Robinson, though initially jovial, is the most tormented and discombobulated by the taboo circumstances of “The Graduate,” especially as his character arcs considerably in act two.

Audiences should be forewarned, that though suggested tastefully, “The Graduate” contains what is best described as almost nudity and the illusion of sexual intimacy. As Ben succumbs to the temptation of his “parents’ most attractive friend,” their near nightly trysts at the Taft Hotel plays out right in front of our eyes. A love-making montage of sorts is interrupted by offstage dialogue, establishing that Ben has wasted his graduation summer away.

This stage version is at its best with the entrance of Elaine (Julia Schwentor), Mrs. Robinson’s oft talked about daughter, whom she has forbidden Ben to see, despite the insistence of Mr. Braddock and Mr. Robinson. Elaine unknowingly enters into a seedy strip club to embark on Ben’s prepared date from hell. He does so in order to insure there will be no second date. The production ensemble fills this noteworthy scene with appropriate ambiance. They include Natassja Porcella as the tassel-twirling stripper, Bradmundo Breitbach as the bartender, and Joel Agnew, Laura Kinne, Shariana Visaya and Magdalena Walaszek (who also doubles as an amusing hotel desk clerk) as the barflies. Throughout the play each actor returns in different roles, an essential in recreating this multi-setting tale laden with short-lived extras.

Comedian Todd Barry will perform at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the ProArts Playhouse in Kihei. The writer, director and actor has appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live and many Comedy Central and Netflix comedy specials. Photo courtesy of the artist

Schwentor quickly lifts the energy of the show with her rapid-fire delivery, quirky personality and mood shifts which range from disgust to sorrow, anger and a bubbliness by scene’s end. However in the scene that follows, now aware of her mother’s and Ben’s secret, we see a heartbroken and appalled Elaine that hopes to never see Ben again. As act one nears its end, unfazed, Ben sets off to literally stalk Elaine at UC-Berkeley, hell-bent on winning her hand in marriage.

Act two’s higher stakes allow for “The Graduate” to be much more compelling with lengthier, intimate scenes. Cullins and Schwentor display entertaining stage chemistry in their love-hate relationship, especially in the opening scene of act two which is the play’s most engaging. We learn much more about who Ben and Elaine really are than the film ever provided, and just as in the film version we begin to root for Ben and Elaine, again a credit to the performances of Cullins and Schwentor as well as Scheideman’s direction.

This insightful scene is followed by a high-octane encounter with Mr. Robinson. Young exhibits a vengeful layer to previously good-natured character. We also see another side of Negaard’s Mr. Braddock, a father who still loves his son, but is deeply enraged and humiliated by Ben’s reckless behavior. At the risk of revealing “The Graduate’s” surprising ending to those that have never seen the film, I will not divulge the final scenes. However, it must be said that Smith’s offerings in the tempestuous conclusion is her best work in the show. A veil is lowered, unmasking a no longer restrained Mrs. Robinson.

A great deal of the production’s charm is due to a fantastic set by Caro Walker. Beds, a hotel counter, the bar and a phone booth all appear with ease out of walls that imply a giant Piet Mondrian painting, aided by the ever-busy actor’s ensemble. Peppering the scene changes are sentimental Simon and Garfunkel musical excerpts, well chosen by Scheideman and sound designer Kealoha Harper. Lighting design by Amy Lord enhances this straightforward homage to 1960’s modern art as Mark Rothko-like paintings emerge with colored light, backlit through three large muslin screens. Vicki Nelson’s colorful costumes also compliment the flawless artistic design. Scheideman and this talented team deliver a new look “The Graduate,” teeming with artistic beauty, amusement, passion of spirit and an engrossing examination of flawed humans.

* Maui OnStage continues “The Graduate” adapted by Terry Johnson, based on the novel by Charles Webb and the screenplay by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry, directed by Rick Scheideman. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays through Oct. 13 at the Historic Iao Theater. Tickets range from $20 to $40. “The Graduate” contains adult themes that may not be appropriate for all audiences. To purchase tickets for any Iao Theater event call 242-6969 or order online at www.mauionstage.com.

ALSO THIS WEEK

Catch comedian Todd Barry in performance in Kihei. Writer, director and actor, Todd Barry has appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman, Late Night with Conan O’Brian, The Sarah Silverman Show, Jimmy Kimmel Live, Chapelle’s Show, Louie and many Comedy Central and Netflix comedy specials. Performance is at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 5 at the ProArts Playhouse. Tickets are $35. To purchase tickets visit www.eventbrite.com.

*****

Join the Maui Academy of Performing Arts for their 31st annual Garden Party on the beautiful shady lawn of the Yokouchi Family Estate in Wailuku from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 6. Enjoy gourmet cuisine from Maui’s top restaurants, fine wines, live music, silent and live auctions including artwork that is created on-site. All-inclusive tickets are $85. The Garden Party is a 21 and over event. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit www.mauiacademy.org.

UPCOMING

The Lanai Academy of Performing Arts presents their original production, “Day of Conquest: The Story of Kaulula’au.” When a rebellious young prince is banished to the island of life-taking spirit, he must learn to rely on the island’s unique resources to survive. Aided by only his tricks and the enigmatic god, Lono, Kaulula’au’s epic journey around ancient Lanai brings him face to face with a wild array of ghost-gods who force him to finally choose between being a reckless troublemaker and being a leader of the land. Performances are at 6 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 1 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 10 through 13 in the Lanai High and Elementary School. Donations are requested at these free youth performances. For more information visit www.lanaiacademy.org.