Brave And Brutal ‘Gary Cooper’

At first, the set of My Name is Gary Cooper is a cause for celebration. Using a grass skirt aesthetic, a stretch of flowing lengths of celluloid film reflect a sort of shimmery, Tinseltown version of a thatched dwelling. In fact, everything about the Kumu Kahua show commences in celebratory fashion. The actors are throwing around engaging banter, laughs are bellowing out, hitting just the right crescendo. But then the haha turns to a tremulous heehaw, when we realize we’ve all been sucker-punched.

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Jo Ramsey as Gary Cooper and Bronwen Souza as Jennifer White PHOTOS COURTESY OF KUMU KAHUA THEATRE

A cornflakes and milk family (the Whites) go about their daily, selfish existence, finding ways to ease life’s lugubriousness. Mom, a disappointed actress, loses herself in alcohol. Dad buries himself in his film career, while still reminiscing about his glory days working in Samoa on the set of Return to Paradise, starring Gary Cooper. Their boy and girl, young adult twins with too much time on their privileged hands, needle each other mercilessly. Nothing brings the family together like a knock at the door that ushers in a rain-soaked Samoan man carrying a straw mat. What a strapping, exotic diversion for them.

The visitor’s name is Gary Cooper, a moniker plenty of Samoans inherited from their star-struck parents. As the White family admires Cooper — the kids enlighten themselves on his culture by drooling over a glaringly racist travelogue on the open and free sex lives of Samoans — he is equally enthralled by them. He’s also a movie buff and can spout off endless Hollywood trivia.

This production is playwright Victor Rodger’s exploration of visual media as a site of violence in an intercultural setting, especially when one side in the cultural exchange retains all of the power. White Man, embodied in Mr. White and his ilk, have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration plundering the goods of the Samoan paradise they’re visiting, leaving a toxic trail of tears and torn clothes in their wake. Hence, Cooper has inherited a generation of hurt and anger.

At intermission, whispered complaints about the garish setting and awkward silences brought home the idea that the audience isn’t meant to feel comfortable. A camera’s shutter clicks away throughout the play, documenting interpersonal violations, and each click is disconcertingly conspicuous. We’re invited into a world of wonderment, but as we seek to enjoy, suddenly click, stomp, smash. Terrible things transpire. Crisscrossing between locations and time periods, a string of revelations unfold in this revenge tale. If you’re looking for relax-and-unwind fluff, you won’t find it here. This is disturbing, hammer-hitting-the-brain Edward Said.

Jo Ramsey’s Gary Cooper is a magnetic force whom the rest of the cast orbits around. He is so authentic and unaffected in his stage debut that it’s like watching a live documentary. As Cooper, he exudes a calm, nonchalant innocence while settling in as the family’s circus monkey. Meanwhile, his clenched fists speak volumes. There’s a scene where he and Mrs. White (Donna Blanchard, also the theater’s managing director) break into song, “Wonderful, marvelous …” and yes, he’s marvelous and she’s wonderful with her come-hither voice, sauntering around in a haze of drink. Randall Galius Jr. and Bronwen Souza as the twins competing for Cooper’s attention take their sibling rivalry out of the ballpark. That trio marks the play’s highlights. Cris Cordio as Mr. White hits the right keys, but he doesn’t quite live up to the intensity needed as the foil to Ramsey’s tremendous protagonist. Fata Simanu-Klutz as an aging prostitute is brazen enough in her interactions with the cast, but her persona deflates once she breaks the fourth wall and propositions the audience, a part she could really have some fun with. Finally, Kiana Rivera is cast as both a contemporary student concerned with depictions of Polynesians in film, and a traditional Samoan woman hurtling through a thunderstorm of heartache.

The razor-edged script paired with David O’Donnell’s daring direction — Kumu Kahua never shies away from provocation — gives the nearly perfect cast some of the meatiest material around. On the downside, the pacing is uneven and a powerful message turns top-heavy in its aggressiveness. Samoan Gary Cooper puts his hands into Hollywood Gary Cooper’s cemented prints. When asked how it feels, he replies, “Dirty.” It’s a symbolic moment, but one that the rest of the play has already spelled out for us, so to keep driving it in starts to make the audience feel dirty. Lee Cataluna’s Flowers of Hawaii, at Kumu last year, was equally edgy and thought-provoking, but without exacting such violence on the viewer. Cooper’s key storyline is enough of a gut stab. By curtain close, a myriad talking points ruffle the mind. One stands out: Do two wrongs make a right or do they merely spiral into an unsalvageable finger-pointing mess?

the TICKET stub
My Name is Gary Cooper
When: Through Feb. 22
Where: Kumu Kahua Theatre
Cost: $5-$20
More Info: 536-4441, kumukahua.org