Author: Hannah Li-Eptstein
At: Berger Park Cultural Center, 6205 N. Sheridan Rd. Tickets: NothingWithoutACompany.org; $10-$35. Runs through: Oct. 5
Nothing Without a Company Theatre continues its tradition of immersive stories from the people at the heart of the Hawaiian drug trade with Pakalolo Sweet ( next in author Hannah Li-Eptstein's Not One Batu Trilogy ).
It chases the same promises of wealth and happiness as Death of a Salesman; almost as if Li-Eptstein is slowing down the RPMs on a familiar story. What should result is one man's downfall story becoming even more universal, as he loses his guaranteed future and discovers what's behind his carefree facade. And while Pakalolo Sweet doesn't capture that dramatic essence, it brings you in for an unforgettable culture lesson.
Pakalolo Sweet is the story of Junior Boy ( Dean Santiago ), a third generation Hawaiian cannabis growers. We are flies on the wall of his backyard party, where everyone has a beer, a joint and a song ready for the karaoke console. Uncle Makana ( Scott Hanada ) tells stories after a long day of scamming rich tourists. Junior Boy's girlfriend Nani ( Sharon Pasia ) is so pregnant she can barely leave her chair, and Kahe ( Victoria Wang ), a friend and fellow grower, keeps the would-be parents up on local gossip. The only threat to this evening is Pops ( Jae Renfrow ), who harbors bad news about their secret grow spot, and looming responsibilities for Junior Boy, who'd prefer to sing 'Moloka'i Slide' instead of facing his narrowing options.
Director Rachel Slavick and cultural specialist Lanialoha Lee have crafted a realistic setting, perfect for an immersive production. Pakalolo Sweet insists you come in, play some cards and shoot the breeze. Their casual party is so enticing and respectful, even rigid introverts are tempted onto Junior Boy's front porch. This atmosphere works until the fourth wall is raised, and reality sets in. The actors race to demonstrate their guilt and frustrations before their world comes apart, but their motivations feel more necessitated by the story than character proclivities.
Dean Santiago volleys between childlike devotion and overwhelming guilt for his mistakes as Junior Boy, but his misdeeds don't appear to haunt him at all until the truth is revealed. As Nani, Sharon Pasia basks in Junior Boy's devotion, but has moments of conflict when an ex returns to her circle. It's a conflict you expect to cloud her judgement in a moment of crisis, but instead she's almost urgently decisive. Scott Hanada adds extra layers of PTSD and grandfatherly bonding to Uncle Makanaa role he reprises from Not One Batu.
A great immersive theater experience allows the audience to discover character flaws and impending plot turns on their own, in small exchanges. By weaving in more discoveries sooner, this apt team can make the most of the immersive side of its production.