Monday, May 20, 2013

Deadly She-Wolf Assassin at Armageddon: Martial Arts On-Stage

Revenge is a family business for the characters of Lone Wolf and Cub.  This is not exactly an official stage adaptation, but fans of the manga and films will recognize certain elements.  The Rogue Assassin’s young Boy did indeed choose the sword over the ball.  However, they might just meet their match in the form of the titular nemesis in Fred Ho & Ruth Margraff’s musical martial arts stage-production, Deadly She-Wolf Assassin at Armageddon! (trailer here), which officially opened this weekend at La MaMa’s Ellen Stewart Theatre.

Once, the Rogue Assassin was the Shogun’s Kaishakunin, until the Imperial councilor, Iyagu of the ruthless Yagyu clan, convinced the old tyrant to turn against his loyal executioner.  Iyagu’s assassins succeed in killing his wife, but the Shogun’s betrayed “second” escapes with his infant son.  This proves to be a costly escapade.  For ten years, the Rogue Assassin cuts through the Imperial assassins and ninjas like butter, depleting the Shogun’s treasury and undermining his ruling authority.

Rather sick of it all, the Shogun imports three super assassins from abroad, at considerable cost to Iyagu’s face.  Not inclined to take matters lying down, the old conspirator plays his trump card, unleashing the She-Wolf Assassin.  Raised from infancy to be Iyagu’s personal La Femme Nikita, her fate is mysteriously intertwined with that of the renegade father and son.

Much fighting ensues, impressively choreographed by lead actor Yoshi Amao for swords and Emanuel Brown (Electro in Broadway’s Spider-man: Turn Off the Dark) for martial arts beatdowns.  The resulting spectacle is musically accompanied by the Afro Asian Music Ensemble, under the direction of conductor-multi-reed player Masaru Koga, performing Fred Ho’s funky Lone Wolf-inspired score.  Incorporating elements of electric bass and baritone sax driven blaxploitation soundtracks and traditional koto and shakuhachi music, Ho’s themes are hip and propulsive, yet still fit the Jidaigeki action on-stage.

Unfortunately, Ho’s hardcore leftist ideology does not serve the story as well.  Frankly, the Uncle Sam assassin caricature is just laughably didactic.  A chicken fried colonialist, Colonel USA is a bit of agitprop street theater that does not fit the otherwise dignified Noh-esque production.

Regardless, the stagecraft of She-Wolf is quite impressive.  The lighting and smoke are suitably moody and the spare set is rather evocative.  Likewise, the costumes provide the right period look without interfering with the fight choreography. 

The cast holds up their end too.  Yoshio Amao is all kinds of brooding badness as the Rogue Assassin, but Ai Ikeda does him one better as the steely She-Wolf.  Takemi Kitamura also shows some dramatic flair and action cred as She-Wolf’s sister (the most substantial of her three roles).    As is standard practice, two young actors rotate as the Boy. Bradley Fong showed real presence in the part Sunday afternoon, never drowning amid all the stage effects and melee unleashed around him. (His alternate, Jet Yung is surely quite good as well.)  With Perry Yung’s Iyagu chewing the scenery with admirable villainous glee, it is a strong ensemble all around.

This is one of the better martial arts themed productions to grace New York’s independent stages in a fair amount of time and the music is always very cool.  There are certain awkward excesses to She-Wolf, but that is sort of par for the course in New York’s theater world.  Hopefully, Mr. Ho is happy with director Sonoko Kawahara’s muscular staging, considering the program’s sad note regarding his ill health.  Recommended for martial arts fans and soul-world fusion jazz listeners, She-Wolf Assassin at Armageddon! runs through June 2nd at La MaMa’s Ellen Stewart Theatre.

(Photo: Kenji Mori)