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people holding up puppets
Elizabeth Gannaway, Lily Hiʻilani Kim-Dela Cruz Okimura, Isaiah Avilla, Alison L.B. Maldonado, Iana Weingard (Photo by Christine Lamborn)

The University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa Department of Theatre and Dance and Kennedy Theatre will transition back to in-person performances in the spring beginning with the much-anticipated production, Eddie Wen’ Go: The Story of the Upside-Down Canoe. Mark Branner, associate professor and head of the Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA) Program at UH Mānoa is the director of the mainstage production that pays homage to beloved Hawaiʻi waterman, Eddie Aikau. The imaginative TYA production incorporates giant and majestic aquatic puppetry, dance, ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi (Hawaiian language), pidgin English, hula and original music.

The play geared toward family audiences, especially those with elementary-aged children, will be presented on the Kennedy Theatre Mainstage from January 28 to February 6. Ticket prices range from $8 to $20.

Adapted from the book by UH alumna, Marion Lyman-Mersereau, a crewmember with Aikau on the 1978 Hōkūleʻa voyage, the play tells the story of when the canoe capsized and Aikau went to get help. Audiences hear from imaginary sea creatures who watch from underneath the upside-down canoe. It is a tribute to Aikau that honors the truth of his final act of courage, while also offering hope and inspiration. The production also highlights Aikau’s life of service to others. He was the first lifeguard at Waimea Bay where he saved more than 500 lives. Aikau’s legacy is about love and giving of himself to others through his actions.

“We’re trying to illustrate and introduce to young audiences and families the whole story of Eddie; what he represents and what that means for us today as members of this community,” Branner said.

Students, faculty bring puppetry alive

actor holding turtle pupped
Nathan Drackett (Photo by Christine Lamborn)

The creative team includes theatre faculty Maile Speetjens (costume design) and Michelle A. Bisbee (scenic coordinator, scenic charge and puppetry adjustments for the stage), graduate student Claire Paul (lighting design) and recent MFA graduate Laura Nigon-Holmgren (scenic and puppet design).

Choreographers Kaohi Yojo Daniel and Amy Schiffner join Branner and fellow director Annie Lokomaikaʻi Lipscomb. Guitar virtuoso Ian O’Sullivan provides the original musical underscore.

Several cast members took Branner’s giant puppetry course during the fall 2021 semester in anticipation of the production. One of the largest puppets, Tutukāne Koholā, a giant whale, is more than 15-feet long and requires five puppeteers to animate it.

“It’s a physically demanding show for all the cast members involved who started training and practicing as early as October for the late January performances,” Branner said. “By the end of the show, the puppeteers should almost disappear from view and all you see are these giant puppets come to life.”

Last season, the decision was made to wait for the possibility of live audiences, rather than stream the production. All patrons (ages 5 and up) are required to show proof of full vaccination and complete the LumiSight UH daily health check app prior to entering Kennedy Theatre. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-approved mask covering the nose and mouth must be worn at all times.

For more information on Eddie Wen’ Go, see Kennedy Theatre’s website.

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