Los Angeles Theater Review: THREE YEAR SWIM CLUB (East West Players in Los Angeles)

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by Tony Frankel on February 22, 2012

in Theater-Los Angeles


Ever since mankind began telling tales, the “overcoming adversity” story has remained ever-popular. From cave wall pictures depicting a hunter’s prowess over the Woolley Mammoth to David overpowering Goliath to calculus teacher Jaime Escalante’s efforts with underprivileged students, these stories are meant to inspire. The heroes, most often with the help of a coach, realize a goal by showing courage under pressure, which rewards them with a brighter future based on newfound self-esteem and self-respect. These coaches come in many shapes and forms, but their job is always the pep-talk, those words of encouragement that caffeinate our souls.

We find such a coach in the mainland premiere of Three Year Swim Club at East West Players, which recounts the real-life story of Soichi Sakamoto, a science teacher on the island of Maui in 1937. He sets about building a swim team with local students in hope of getting them into the anticipated 1940 Summer Olympics. Lee Tonouchi’s play centers on four socially disadvantaged children of sugar cane workers who have neither the financial advantage nor the superior training facilities needed to gain an edge. Although not a swimmer himself, the penurious Sakamoto creates revolutionary training techniques, using cement-filled buckets as weight training equipment and sugar plantation irrigation channels where the kids swim against the current.

Unfortunately, this great story – through no fault of the actors – doesn’t make it to the finish line. Tonouchi is both very knowledgeable in Hawaiian history and a leading expert in the Pidgin language (used adroitly throughout the play), but he is tied to historical facts and does not use artistic license to create multi-dimensional characters from his real-life people.

Sakamoto (Blake Kushi) is portrayed as a driven, serious, and rigid coach, yet when photos of the real coach were projected on stage, his smile positively jumped out, causing bemusement in the spectator. Why didn’t we see that side of the man? Kushi handled the role in a solid manner, displaying a hint of gentility, but he is relegated to mostly pep-talks (“Shape up,” “Do you have what it takes?”).

Plus, the dialogue contains a plethora of expository material (“Remember when…” “That’s when you said…” “Your parent’s thought…”) which verges on the dull because the historical conflicts in the show are more interesting than the characters’ trifling personal conflicts (squabbles amongst the students as to who is better than whom, for example). We don’t care if the Olympics are cancelled or not (they were – twice) if we don’t see the effect that it had on the team (it didn’t).

Pep-talks alone can get rather dull to the listeners of stories. Whether true-to-life or fiction, and regardless of the narrative’s medium (books, campfire chats, the nightly news), the more interesting stories involve a deuteragonist – the character next in importance to the protagonist – who needs the pupil as much as the pupil needs him. (Think of boxing trainer Mickey “You’re gonna eat lightnin’, you’re gonna crap thunder” Goldmill in Rocky or handyman Keisuke “Wax on, wax off” Miyagi in the Karate Kid). There is no clear protagonist in Tonouchi’s story, and no one has a transformative revelation, one that the audience can clutch onto. Sakamoto does learn to involve his spouse more in his world, but that’s not a very compelling theatrical outcome.

Sakamoto’s wife, aptly named Mrs. Sakamoto, is a supporting character played by charming Kaliko Kauahi, but the warm and appealing actress is given no conflict to spice up the story (unless you consider a wife you wants to spend more time with her husband a conflict).

The trainees (AKA the “Maui Ditch kids”) are all archetypes that one would normally find in an “overcoming adversity” tale, but they also lack an arc to latch onto. The earnest and energetic actors are very watchable, but sorely limited by the script. The four swimmers are cocky jock Halo (the very funny Kelsey Chock), the shy, serious and skillful Keo (a fetching Jared Asato), the misunderstood outsider Bill (a well-controlled Chris Takemoto-Gentile) and the resilient female Fudge (comely Mapuana Makia), a character who could have been used to create a serious conflict of a sexual nature, but wasn’t.

All the actors are Hawaiian-born, which ensures that the fascinating and fun Hawaii Pidgin English was spoken authentically. Indeed, the dialect did not get in the way and was one of the most charming aspects of the show. (An example of the language: “God is going to do a lot of good things for him” becomes “God goin do plenny good kine stuff fo him.”)

Keo Woolford’s direction is largely uninventive, giving his actors no more motivation than hoeing the ground, sweeping, shutting off a radio, and so on. As a choreographer, however, Woolford’s experience certainly shows in his staging of the swimming training and competitions. He brilliantly utilizes hula dancing to personify Sakamoto’s repeat and wind-sprint techniques, aided by beautiful music, gourd drumming (courtesy of Ms. Kauahi) and the actors’ lyrical and rhythmic gyrations. But even the dance/swim invention, after a while, becomes as redundant as the blocking.

The technical elements are fine and do allow the audience to share in the swimming and training experience. Adam Flemming’s set and projection designs are adequate, but ultimately felt more like a Tiki Bar than the Hawaiian Islands. Jeremy Pivnick is responsible for the lights and Dennis Yen the sound.

Lee Tonouchi has written five books in Pidgin, assigning himself the name “Da Pidgin Guerrilla,” but even though he has three plays under his belt (according to the bio), he showed his playwriting naïveté by having characters break the fourth wall to tell us how the story ends for each. If the people are not deeply-rooted in the story enough to finish it, then why take us on this journey? Fascinating historical matter, a touchy-feely subject and an adorable language are not enough. Ultimately, the heart-felt performances in Three Year Swim Club honored the real-life story more than the script could.

by Tony Frankel & Jeanne Hartman

photos by Michael Lamont

Three Year Swim Club
East West Players in Los Angeles (Los Angeles Theater)
scheduled to end on March 11
for tickets, visit http://www.eastwestplayers.org


{ 1 comment }

Gary T. Kubota August 5, 2014 at 10:17 am

Aloha Tony and Jeanne:

Hopefully, you might be interested in attending my one-person play “Legend Of Ko’olau,” originally directed by Keo Woolford (Three Year Swim Club) and which was selected for creation by the National Performance Network of New Orleans in 2013. Just mentioning it in your blog ahead of the performance would be great. It will have its premiere as an independent production in Los Angeles at the David Henry Hwang Theatre at 7:20 p.m. on Oct. 11, 2014. My website is legendofkoolau.com. The actor is Los Angeles resident Moronai Kanekoa.

Thank you for your time and dedication,
Gary T. Kubota,
(808) 268-3918

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