Shakespeare goes Hawaiian in University Theatre’s ‘Twelfth Night’

Michael Muckian, Contributing writer

Director Baz Luhrmann set his film Romeo + Juliet in modern-day, gang-ridden Verona. Ian McKellen created a memorable Richard III as a 1930s-era mustachioed fascist dictator. And even the 1956 sci-fi potboiler Forbidden Planet is considered an interplanetary retelling of The Tempest.

But no one ever recast anything by William Shakespeare in 19th-century Hawaii at a time when the Hawaiian monarchy ended and the islands’ occupation by the United States began. At least, until now.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Department of Theatre and Drama/University Theater is staging Shakespeare’s comedy Twelfth Night as if it were part of Hawaiian history, with palm trees, Hawaiian royalty, hula dancers and all.

Credit director David Furumoto for the innovative approach, although the UW theater professor did not have to reach very far for inspiration. The Honolulu native — who earned his BA and MFA from the University of Hawaii and who specializes in Asian theater and dance — blended Shakespeare’s gender-bending comedy of mistaken identities with his own understanding of Hawaiian history and culture.

It is a combination, Furumoto says, that works very well.

“This is not a Hawaiian adaptation,” Furumoto says. “It is still Shakespeare’s play put into a Hawaiian setting. There is actually a wonderful adaptation by James Grant Benton called Twelfth Night or Whateva written in Hawaiian ‘pidgin English,’ but I was worried that Madison audiences might have trouble understanding it.”

Shakespeare’s comedy doesn’t lose anything when set in historic Hawaii, Furumoto says. In fact, the adaptation should provide audience members with a few lessons of its own.

“I was struck by how much of the play lent itself to a period of Hawaiian history that I feel much of America does not know anything about,” Furumoto says. “With the current (political) climate I also thought it was important to use this opportunity to raise peoples’ awareness of this history.”

Hawaii’s history

The Hawaiian Islands was a monarchy under the Kamehameha Dynasty when the U.S government recognized the country’s independence in 1846. But the interest — and greed — of sugar plantation owners and heirs of the Christian missionaries who came to the islands decades earlier found Hawaii’s monarchy inconvenient to their own economic growth.

Political machinations occurred and unrest began brewing between the native population and American interlopers. In 1893, a coup d’etat led by Lorrin Thurston, the grandson of missionaries and supported both by American politicians and an invasion force of U.S. Marines, overthrew the rule of Queen Lili’uokalani, who was put under house arrest in Iolani Palace, now a popular Honolulu tourist destination.

Lili’uokalani, also a musician and songwriter, used her time in confinement to compose and transcribe her songs. Her most famous composition — the familiar “Aloha ‘Oe, (Farewell to Thee)” originally written as a lover’s goodbye — came to be regarded as a lament for the loss of her country.

With the monarchy overthrown, the islands briefly became the Republic of Hawaii. In 1898, it was annexed as a territory of the United States.

Cue the Bard

Furumoto’s version of Twelfth Night is set in the days before the coup.

“The characters of Orsino and Olivia are members of Hawaiian royalty in this version,” Furumoto explains. “At this time there was a division among the royals between those interested in the introduction of Western culture and those who wanted to hold on to the old traditions.”

In the end, and in the wake of the coup, it didn’t really matter which point of view may have been valid. Everything changed with the fall of the monarchy, Furumoto says.

“There is a saying in Hawaii that the missionaries came to do good and their children did well,” he explains. “The descendants of those first missionary families became major players in Hawaii’s economy, creating huge sugar and pineapple plantations that made them very wealthy.”

The plantations called for many laborers, which drew an influx of immigrants from China, Japan, Portugal, Puerto Rico, the Philippines and other countries — a fact that led Furumoto to choose a multicultural cast to reflect the many nationalities found in the islands.

“The influence of the missionaries is portrayed by the character of Malvolio, who became a steward in Olivia’s household,” Furumoto says. “The New England missionaries took a dim view of the Hawaiians’ love of dance, music and feasting. The hula had to go underground and was almost stamped out by the missionary powers.”

Fortunately, the hula is alive and well in this production.