May 01, 1987

Song For the Navigator

Song For the Navigator
by Michael Cowell
Honolulu Theatre for Youth
Directed by John Kauffman
Set Design: Joseph Dodd
Costume Design: Laura Crow
Lighting: Lloyd S. Riford III

Amongst a mixed bag of Australian productions at the ASSITEJ Congress, the Honolulu Theatre for Youth’s play is a likeable piece but not one to put fear in the hearts of local theatre practitioners. Song For the Navigator by Michael Cowell was commissioned by the HTY, as they describe it, “to celebrate the people of Micronesia.”

Micronesia is the general name for the thousands of islands in an archipelago around Hawaii. The gist of the story is that young Gabby who has been living in the big smoke in Honolulu, is suddenly spirited off in his holidays to stay with his grandfather on Satawal, a tiny island 4,000 miles south-west of Hawaii. The cultural adjustment is something of a shock for Gabby who has nowhere to plug in his portable stereo battery pack and gets looks of incomprehension when he breaks into teenage slang. The society he enters is a traditionally ordered village community guided by his elderly grandfather, who though now blind, sees with the eyes of the famous ocean navigators of Micronesia.

Predictably, after a period of pouting and sulking, Gabby becomes attracted to the practices and lore of the community, particularly as taught by the wise old patrician. As a neat parallel, his cousin Tilifag becomes decadent and citified just as Gabby begins to value the old ways. The storyline is a conventional one but the play is raised from mediocrity by the intrinsic interest of its subject. The presentation of the shamanistic world view of the old navigator has much of the same fascination as Carlos Castaneda’s conversations with the sorcerer Don Juan, which were all the go in the early 70’s.

The play treats its subject with genuine regard and so, accordingly, do audiences. The songs of navigation, the reverence for natural phenomena and the healthy regard for supernatural phenomena as well, are all convincingly presented. In fact, one of the best scenes in the play shows Gabby and his cousin, who after having got drunk on the potent local brew and caused havoc with a neighbour’s chickens, with prompting from the grandfather Accept responsibility for their misdemeanor and sit inside a rope circle to acknowledge their shame and contrition.All this comes perilously close to a sentimental idyll of noble savagery and the Superiority of the Old Ways but the incidents are vividly and unpretentiously staged and the effect is well short of sententious.

In the lead James Pestana gives a steady and amiable performance as Gabby and much of the success of the piece emanates from that. Tremaine Tamayose as the grandfather is at times ponderous and awkward but gives a credible account of a character well beyond the actor’s years. Ray Bumatai brings precision to a variety of roles and provides much of the theatrics in the simple staging of plane flights and other incidentals.

Indeed, the play works well when it is most concerned with theatrical effect. The storm scenes are enacted with a nice blend of traditional and workable dramatic gesture and Joseph Dodds’ simple but effective props for canoes, sails and what-have-you silenced restive school audiences with their spectacle and showed Director John Kauffman and writer Michael Cowell’s work at its best. Song For the Navigator is conscientious theatre which, while scarcely opening up new territory, offers thoughtful bearings for young audiences who might well wonder how often and well our own indigenous culture is celebrated in works for the stage.

“Song For the Navigator”, Lowdown, Vol.9, No.3, May, 1987, p.31.

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