comscore Cataluna broadens resume with solid historical drama | Honolulu Star-Advertiser

Cataluna broadens resume with solid historical drama

    Convicted Kauai train robber Hali (Wil T.K. Kahele) is consoled by the spirit of his mother (Puamana Crabbe) as he ponders his fate while doing time in Oahu Prison.

Villains are often more vivid and vibrant than the "good guys." Nui, the all-around bad guy in Kumu Kahua’s "The Great Kaua’i Train Robbery," is a perfect example.

As brought to life by veteran actor William Ha’o, the man is a human nightmare — vicious, selfish, manipulative, irresponsible and brutal. Think Pap Finn with a pidgin accent. Ha’o is the driving presence in the story’s darkest scenes.

The new play is a milestone for playwright (and Honolulu Star-Advertiser columnist) Lee Cataluna. She’s enjoyed popular success for a decade writing light pidgin comedies, but this is a solid drama and the laughs are few and far between.

In another bold step outside her traditional pidgin comedy format, Cataluna is drawing on her own family history. Yes, her great-great-uncle was convicted of train robbery on Kauai; photos relevant to the case and copies of court documents are on display in the theater lobby.


» Where: Kumu Kahua Theatre, 46 Merchant St.

» When: 8 p.m. Thursdays to Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through Nov. 28 (except Thanksgiving)

» Cost: $20 (discounts available)

» Info: 536-4441 or


The story takes place not quite a century ago. Hali and his wife, Mohu, are childless and beginning to wonder whether they will ever have children of their own. Hali’s cousin Nui, a hard-drinking ne’er-do-well, has more children than he can provide for. Nui comes to Hali with an offer he can’t resist: If Hali will co-sign the loan Nui needs to start a business, Nui will let Hali and Mohu hanai one of his unwanted children.

Hali is the oldest male in the ohana, and all the family land is in his name — even lots that his late father intended younger family members to receive when they reach legal age. By co-signing the note, Hali puts those lots up as security along with his own.

Nui’s business goes bust. Hali’s ohana is going to lose everything. And then someone robs a train that’s carrying $11,000 in payroll money to the plantation.

Wil T.K. Kahele (Hali) stars as a noble, hard-working traditional Hawaiian. Justin Fragiao (Kaina) is the damaged boy he welcomes as the son he may never sire. Lisa Ann Katagiri (Mohu) completes the nuclear family as Hali’s loving but unfulfilled wife.

Katagiri is an asset in several scenes as her large eyes and expressive features present a wide range of emotions without a word said.

Puamana Crabbe is perfect as Hali’s mother. Jason K. Ellinwood as the sheriff and Tony Nickelsen as the prosecuting attorney complete the cast.

Having criticized Kumu Kahua’s season-opening production of "Ghosts in the Plague Year" for its crude portrayal of Caucasians as bombastic buffoons, it must be mentioned that Cataluna and director Kati Kuroda avoid such racially divisive characterizations here. Both law enforcement characters are written and played as honest men who are enforcing the law impartially.

The production also benefits from the work of Stu Hirayama (sound design) in establishing the time frame with a rich soundtrack of vintage music. BullDog (set design) uses silhouettes effectively in "showing" the robbery without revealing the robber’s identity or forcing the cast to handle the logistics of a separate set.

The silhouette concept doesn’t work later in a party scene, but the party scene should be cut by 75 percent anyway.

The party scene notwithstanding, it is a shame Kumu Kahua still refuses to participate in the Hawaii State Theatre Council’s Po’okela Awards program. Cataluna’s story of good people making bad choices deserves a "Pokie" in the moribund "Best New Script" category.


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