Friday, February 20, 2009

On-Stage: Soul Samurai

If you know your Blaxploitation, you probably know your martial arts movies too. After all, the genres frequently overlapped in films like Black Belt Jones and The Dynamite Brothers. It is those funky, violent, and sexually charged films that inspired Qui Nguyen’s Soul Samurai. Described as a super-hero comic-book-inspired-hip-hop-martial-arts-Blaxploitation-post-apocalyptic play, Soul Samurai opened Off-Broadway last night at the HERE Arts Center, bringing a distinctly Shaft-like sensibility to the New York stage.

Dewdrop is a ronin—a masterless samurai. By definition, she should be out for revenge and she does not disappoint. In addition to her former master and teacher, the Shogun of Queens, she also must avenge the murder of her lover, Sally December. To do that, she ventures into the most dangerous place on Earth: the Badlands, a.k.a. Brooklyn.

Her quarry is Boss 2K, the Kingsborough King and leader of the “Long Tooth” ninja-zombies. Though he chafes at the term, Dewdrop has a b-boy “sidekick” in tow, known as Cert: “As in Death Cert . . . ificate,” which nobody takes seriously for obvious reasons. While on the run from the Long Tooth hordes, Dewdrop narrates flashback sequences to explain her origins and quest for revenge, including a flat-out hilarious send-up of the martial arts training montage.

Truly, Samurai has attitude to burn, dropping colorful dialogue bombs like Samuel L. Jackson in a Tarantino director’s cut. Nguyen clearly loves the genres he cleverly sends up, hitting all the tropes at one time or another. Robert Ross Parker’s brisk direction is actually quite a feat, deftly juggling multiple flashbacks, extended fight sequences, puppetry, and projected video intervals, even including a tripped out animated sequence. Adding to the almost over-the-top vibe, the small cast of five plays all seventeen roles (or nineteen depending on how you count them).

The entire cast handles the physical demands of the play quite well, with several actors taking full advantage of their multiple death scenes. As Dewdrop, the appropriately attractive Maureen Sebastian projects an endearing vulnerability, while simultaneously cutting (literally) through the Long Tooths like the Grim Reaper himself. Jon Hoche seems filled with the spirit of Blaxploitation as Grandmaster Mack, the Shogun of Manhattan, sporting a seriously old school Afro. Paco Tolson shows a real facility for physical comedy, legitimately earning his laughs as the meant-to-be annoying sidekick. Sheldon Best also gives a notably intriguing performance as the title character of the highly stylized so-called “Completely Uninteresting Tale of Marcus Moon” interludes, which nicely capture the flavor of comic book origin myths.

Those who do not know Foxy Brown from Jackie Brown might be a little out of their element here. However, if you see the appeal in watching a beautiful woman kill bad guys with a sword, you will be sound as a pound at Samurai. It is an enormously inventive production that delivers a satisfying blend of humor and violence. Now officially open, it runs at HERE through March 15th.

(Photo: Jim Baldassare)