Sarah Rudinoff's new one-woman show, "The Last State," is actually about two provinces, two paradises lost. One is Hawaii, the island state where Rudinoff grew up, which serves...
Sarah Rudinoff’s new one-woman show, “The Last State,” is actually about two provinces, two paradises lost.
One is Hawaii, the island state where Rudinoff grew up, which serves as an enchanted tropical playground to hordes of tourists and as a less idealized, problematic home to native and long-time residents.
The other despoiled Garden of Eden is Rudinoff’s youth, after her parents’ difficult divorce and custody battle.
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Rudinoff struggles to telescope both terrains in one complex picture, exploring Hawaii’s complex cultural and political history through the lens of her own rocky family saga, and visa versa.
It’s a gutsy reach for this popular Seattle stage artist, whose previous solo show, “Go There,” was an uneven revue of zesty songs and comic anecdotes.
Premiering at On the Boards, “The Last State” is indeed less flippant, more probing than “Go There,” with a staging by Sheila Daniels that incorporates home videos, slides, incidental music (played live, by excellent John Ackermann) and a scenic runway of sand.
But like many ambitious solo docudramas, this one lacks the focus and narrative drive to make the many stories it tells as compelling as the teller. It also is burdened by a dry, recurring audio re-enactment of U.S. Senate hearings about Hawaiian statehood, which have political currency but slow the pacing to a crawl.
The reach of “The Last State” does reveal more facets of Rudinoff’s ample performing talents. She sings a little here (a thrilling delivery of a hair-raising native Hawaiian song). She projects the majesty and defiance of Hawaii’s last monarch, Queen Liliuokalani. And she easily slips into the skins and speech patterns of native Hawaiian characters who speak their minds in earthy, wry pidgin-slang monologues. (Some word translations in the program would be helpful.)
The full-figured Rudinoff dances gracefully (with hula movements choreographed by Wade Madsen). And against the projected images of her attractive young family cavorting on Kauai, she offers insightful, unsentimental stories about her youth: as a prepubescent misfit, a carefree nature girl and a “haole” (Caucasian) striving to fit into Hawaii’s fusion Polynesian/Asian/European social milieu. An eternal insider/outsider, she cracks ruefully, “I was always making a first impression.”
The format of “The Last State” is so doggedly fragmented, however, it rarely sustains or follows through on its portraits of native islanders (whose individual impact on Rudinoff’s life isn’t clear). Nor can it give us more than a sketchy sense of the Hawaiians’ struggle for sovereignty and attempts to retain their fading indigenous culture.
More crucially, Rudinoff doesn’t really give us the lowdown on what turns out to be one of “The Last State’s” major, but most diffused, themes: her fraught relationship with her mother. We learn, slapdash, that Sarah’s minister father was the more stable, prosperous biological parent. And her “neatnik but poor” hippie-ish mom was an erratic source of maternal support. But what really happened to this couple, and to their offspring, that fueled Rudinoff’s disappointment and estrangement?
Rather than quote the Congressional Quarterly extensively and provide colorful scattered portraits, one wishes Rudinoff would zero in on the most personal, dramatic story she has to tell. Perhaps it’s the one through which the Hawaii she knows will best be revealed.
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org