Wednesday, September 25, 2002

UH play breathes fire
into age-old questions

"The Boy Who Stole the Stars," shows at 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at Kennedy Theatre, University of Hawaii-Manoa. Tickets are $10 general; $9 seniors, military, faculty and staff; $7 non-UH students and children; $3 UH students. Call 956-7655

Review by John Berger

Give James Davenport an A+ for designing the dragon that dominates the climactic scene of the University of Hawaii at Manoa/Kennedy Theatre Mainstage production of "The Boy Who Stole the Stars." Give the master of fine arts candidate an A as well for the set -- a house front that neatly incorporates touches of local architecture, and a simple bridge that arcs over a swamp and becomes a stairway to heaven for Nicholas, playwright Julian Wiles' young protagonist, who must steal a star or two to save his grandfather's life.

And give actor Jeremy Pippin an A for his convincing portrayal of Nicholas, a prepubescent boy stuck at that awkward age at which girls are interested in boys but boys don't reciprocate the feeling. (Costume designer Sandra Finney does a neat job in dressing Pippen in oversize clothes to make him appear smaller than he is; Kevin Pacheco will play Nicholas on Sunday.)

Noelle Poole is sweet without slipping into precociousness as Genevieve, the neighbor girl who takes an interest in the lonely and socially inept boy.

Nicholas has been adrift and friendless ever since his buddy moved away and didn't answer his letters. The whole school knows about Nicholas' plight and considers him odd for being so distraught about the other boy's departure. At least Nicholas won't have to face them now that school's out. He'll be spending the summer with his grandparents, whose country home is in the same school district as his parents'. His outlook changes when Genevieve tells him his grandfather has been acting oddly recently as well.

Nicholas's grandfather is suffering from a terminal illness that appears to combine Parkinson's Disease with the early stages of dementia; his hands shake, and at times he doesn't know what day it is or where he's going. A third malady may kill him before the other two have run their course.

Matthew Malliski (Grandfather) and Debra Jean Zwicker (Grandmother) give an excellent tandem performance, conveying the experience of dementia victims and their families. (Set designer Davenport will portray the grandfather this weekend). Grandfather knows that his mind is going and he's understandably afraid of the future. He also regrets all the "wasted time" he could have spent better with his wife. At the same time, he does not want to be pitied, and lashes out at his wife in his frustration.

And so, while the title of the play may suggest that this is a fantasy or fairy tale, playwright Wiles and director Tamara Hunt tell a far more complicated story that weaves together the grandfather's struggle to come to terms with his fate, the ways in which a terminal illness affect the victim's family and Nicholas' attempts to deal with the impending loss of another loved one.

What's a lad to do?

Grandfather provides the answer. While lucid, he agrees to help Nicholas with his school project of "counting the stars," and as they talk about the various constellations. Grandfather mentions the dragon that guards the stars so that people won't steal them.

God scattered the stars to remind Adam and Eve of all they forfeited by defying him in the Garden of Eden, but, so one legend goes, if someone kills the dragon, the stars will fall and Paradise will be restored. Each thunderstorm signals the dragon's victory over another would-be star-stealer.

Nicholas grabs Genevieve's umbrella as a storm is brewing and goes into the heavens to kill the dragon so that the stars will fall to Earth and his grandfather will live.

The battle between Nicholas and the dragon is the most spectacular piece of stagecraft on the Kennedy Theatre mainstage since Dennis Carroll's epic presentation of "Faust" in 2001. Davenport's stylized dragon is a magnificent creation with flashing red eyes. It appears out of the star clusters amid billowing clouds of stage smoke and additional embellishments, courtesy of Kyle Lemoi (lighting design) and Kala'i Stern (sound design). Puppeteers Pawaluk Suraswadi, Mitchell Goo and Kevin Pacheco animate the head and front feet while unidentified stagehands in the fly rails handle the body and tail.

Nicholas prevails, the stars rain down, and he and his grandparents are reunited when the storm is over.

"The Boy Who Stole the Stars" is intended to interest kids in astronomy, but it is equally relevant as a springboard for discussions about such topics as aging, death, the nature of friendship and the changes that can be anticipated when boys' interests begin shifting from cowboys to girls.

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