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A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Hawaii Theatre’s Eddie Wen’ Go

Author and Hokulea alum Marion Lyman-Mersereau tells the story of Eddie Aikau with giant puppets in a new Hawaii Theatre Center production.


Surrounded by sea creatures, Jamy Torres (center) will be the voice of Tutuwahine, the play’s protagonist; Michael ‘Donut” Donato (right) voices the baby whale, Kaleo Kohaha; and slack key guitar virtuoso Danny Carvalho will compose and perform the live soundscape for Hawaii Theatre Center’s production of Eddie Wen’ Go.  
Photo: Kaveh Kardan

When the Hokulea capsized on its way to Tahiti in 1978, 16 crewmembers went overboard, including Marion Lyman-Mersereau. “I was very seasick, but when Eddie went for help, I remember quietly chanting over and over in my mind, ‘Go Eddie, go, go Eddie, go ...’ all day and night,” she remembers. Famed waterman Eddie Aikau was never seen again, but his heroic sacrifice and gung-ho spirit have lived on.

Lyman-Mersereau has been telling the story of the ill-fated voyage for more than 30 years, including in her 2008 children’s book, Eddie Wen’ Go: The Story of the Upside-Down Canoe. In it, she imagines what sea creatures might have seen during the incident. Now, with the help of UH’s Department of Theatre and Dance and musician Danny Carvalho, Eddie Wen’ Go is coming to the Hawaii Theatre.

Carvalho says that everybody’s heard the phrase “Eddie would go.” But while it adorns bumper stickers and T-shirts across the Islands, how many people actually know how he disappeared? “It's a very inspiring story that really exemplifies who he was and why so many looked up to him,” he says. “It's an important story, told in a way that people of any age can appreciate, and I think the play really does a spectacular job at telling it.”

Mark Branner, a professor at UH, was teaching abroad in London when he received the script for the show. In order to take on the project as director, he knew there would be a lot of preproduction and development work, so he decided to teach a graduate seminar on it this past spring. Theatre for Young Audiences had just five students who were responsible for everything from lighting and sound design to publicity materials for the show.

“At first we were only going to project images from the book, which are quite nice, and have actors read the lines,” says Branner, but as they explored other, more engaging ways of the telling the story, they decided to go all out with giant puppets. “We had a hard time finding who could do this, the project was too big,” he says. Then they recruited the McCall family of Theatre Design & Productions, who had worked with Hawaii Theatre before, to construct the six puppets. It took several months to make them.

“I originally imagined the sea creatures as very adept actors who, with a simple dorsal fin hat, a turtle shell on a back or arms outstretched like a soaring bird, would become the creatures,” says Lyman-Mersereau. “I never dreamed of the brilliantly conceived and gracefully animated puppets which have been created for the show!”

Tutuwahine under construction.

Tutuwahine, the grandmother whale, is 24 feet long and in five segments. It takes up to seven people to operate her. Mr. Mano, a shark in the play, is 8 feet long and worn by an actor. Three people operate Kaleo, a 12-foot-long whale. “It’s all been a very great process,” Branner says. “There are incredible elements in there,” so even though it’s meant as a children’s story, “we as adults are just kind of in awe.”

Lyman-Mersereau decided to adapt the book for theater as a natural progression of the story. “The CD version of the book is sort of like a play, and I often did readings with a cast of friends because it was fun to read with different voices,” she says. “I also wanted to add a human element, so I wrote the play with scenes alternating between ocean creatures and humans onboard the canoe.” She approached Carvalho, who was involved with the original audiobook, to help bring it to life.

“The music for the audiobook fit that story and that cast very well, but there are several changes in tone that happen when it becomes a play,” Carvalho says, so he completely redid the music for this production. “Between the whole new collection of scenes, the new cast and the added enhancement of lighting and giant puppets, it felt like I needed to create something new.”

The play coincides with Hokulea’s first worldwide voyage, an unprecedented mission for its crew. Lyman-Mersereau says, “I think it's important to know that in ancient times, over the course of history, there were probably entire canoes lost at sea. Hokulea has sailed thousands and thousands of miles throughout the Pacific over the past 38 years and only one person has been lost.

“I hope audiences are able to realize how this story, this play, pays tribute to a man who made a heroic sacrifice, understanding the great risk involved, in order to save his fellow crew members.”

There will be two performances of Eddie Wen’ Go: Friday, Sept. 19 at 7 p.m. and Saturday, Sept. 20 at 2 p.m., with tickets ranging from $5–$10. Children under 4 are free. The Hawaii Theatre is located at 1130 Bethel St., 528-0506, hawaiitheatre.com.

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