nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 17, 2009
Soul Samurai, the new show from the Vampire Cowboys (playwright/fight director Qui Nguyen and director Robert Ross Parker) has HIT written all over it. Savvy off-Broadway producers should be pushing each other out of the way to get to HERE Arts Center so that they can be the one to move what feels like the Next Big Thing in Theatre to the long commercial run it doesn't just deserve but commands. (The standing ovation—the first one I've ever seen for an indie theater production—says a great deal about the viability of such a move.) Soul Samurai offers a happy and rare combination of pop-culture-guilty pleasure and smart, sophisticated storytelling; of what Nguyen himself calls a "theatrical event for the geek-chic" and thrilling and funny live-action adventure of the sort that heretofore has exclusively been shown on a screen of some kind. All the innovations that Vampire Cowboys have been working on these past five years come together here in an evening that's loaded with energy, style, humor, intelligence, and a surprising amount of heart.
Ok, so now that I've made it clear that I like this show, let me tell you something more concrete about it. Soul Samurai takes place in the future, in a post-apocalyptic New York that's become a hellish battleground controlled by three shoguns (headquartered in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens). It's kind of like what's described in the Billy Joel song "Miami 2017" and shares an aesthetic with that piece that makes the heavy cautionary detail nowhere near as scary as it should be: we ought to be dreading an incipient day when subways and buses stop running in the boroughs because the infrastructure has crumbled out from under then, but when Nguyen presents just such a scenario in this play it feels safely abstract and fictional.
So, in this crazy East-meets-West post-everything landscape, we meet Dewdrop, a young Asian American woman who—when we first encounter her—is trying to kill the Brooklyn overlord Boss 2K. Dewdrop is abetted by her sidekick, a hip-hop-inspired cool-kid-wannabe named Cert (as in "Death CERT-ificate"). I am not going to explain here why Dewdrop is seeking revenge on this slimy character, or how she and Cert get stuck in a dark abandoned subway tunnel, or what a chance encounter in a college library several years earlier between Dewdrop and a spoiled student activist named Sally December has to do with all of this. Nguyen's potent dramaturgy and Parker's tight direction explicate all as the story moves backwards and forwards and sometimes even sideways through time. Homage is made to all the disparate influences that Nguyen cites in his program note (Shaolin Monks, Shaft, Bruce Lee, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, et al). There are Avenue Q-esque puppets, cartoons, and lots of comic-book style animation and live action. Best of all, there are fights, fights, and more fights, featuring a variety of weapons that range from the exotic (nunchucks) to the shockingly ordinary (a broom). These are staged by Nguyen, who is a master of invention in this arena; the battle sequences are at once funny and thrilling and—at least from my vantage point, in the front row—frequently heart-stopping.
One of the miracles of Parker and Nguyen's work is that somehow the cast only consists of five actors. There are 19 characters listed in the program, and it often feels like most of them are on stage at the same time. But indeed it's just this intrepid and talented quintet: Sheldon Best, who is hilarious as Dewdrop's wise mentor Master Leroy Green, and joltingly affecting as a nerdish loser named Marcus; Jon Hoche, who has some memorable moments as Queens shogun Grandmaster Mack (decked out in a fuchsia fur coat) and as a latter-day Pastor in a bombed out church; Maureen Sebastian, a nonstop whirl of energy as Dewdrop; Bonnie Sherman, intense in two very different roles as Sally December and as gang leader Lady Snowflake; and Paco Tolson, who stops the show repeatedly with his very funny antics as Cert (such as a moonwalked exit after a particularly brazen attempt at hipness).
The designers of Soul Samurai have similarly done exemplary work, led by Nick Francone, whose ingenious unit set and lights create the look and feel of this weirdly cartoonish apocalyptic world, and including costume designers Sarah Laux and Jessica Wegener, puppet designer David Valentine, sound designer Sharath Patel, and wig/hair designer Ashley Ryan, who obviously had a great time finding the wild locks worn by Sally December (a bright white afro) and Master Leroy Green (ancient Chinese-style pigtails and beard).
All of these theatrical elements work together seamlessly to give the audience a 100-minute thrill ride that never lets up. Soul Samurai has lots of laughs, lots of action, lots of tomfoolery, and underneath it all one or two serious points that give it the heft that's needed to separate it from mere parody. It's an authentically exciting theatre experience, one that I think will appeal to just about all audiences. Kudos to Ma-Yi Theater Company for partnering with Vampire Cowboys to bring this extraordinarily entertaining show to New York audiences. If we're lucky, it will get the attention it deserves and stick around for a long, long time.