Feeling overly soft and cuddly? Dulled by the long winter? Need to pump yourself full of urban adrenaline? Soul Samurai is one long, sustained blast of the stuff. With unflagging energy and nary an ounce of dramatic flab, playwright/fight director Qui Nguyen riffs on post-apocalyptic science fiction, Fangoria horror (specifically vampire lore), blaxploitation films, karate movies, samurai/ninja subcultures, and gangsta rap bravado. His take on popular culture leans heavily towards fan-geekdom, and so of course it's also sexy, and full of noisy joy.
Combining cinematic vividness and let's-get-physical stagecraft, Soul Samurai boasts more fight scenes than the complete works of Shakespeare, or so it seems. It has a youthful, athletic cast with more energy than a solar flare, and talent to match.
At first one wonders whether the show can sustain the pace established by the opening fight between the gang leader of a fantastical post-war Brooklyn (Sheldon Best, ice-cool), and the brash but lovable b-boy Cert (the happily scene-stealing Paco Tolson). Our hero, Dewdrop (the sharp Maureen Sebastian) quickly appears, and the fight is over. Cert gloats: "See, nobody messes with the Cert and the Dewdrop. I told you, you fucked up motherfucker, we'ze the baddest, we'ze the prettiest, we'ze the g.d. finest!" The more serious-minded Dewdrop chastises him: "The fuck you doing, bozu?" "I'm talking smack," he replies. "Talking smack is the best part."
With that, Nguyen is off and running. Amidst the elaborate choreography, larger-than-life characterizations, projections and lighting effects, vivid underworld sets, and urban music (of several eras), talking smack is still the best part. Nguyen is mad-skilled at creating urban-speak characters who through their use of language are fleshed out realistically before us while sending themselves up at the same time.
With few props, the production team creates a mythical gangland NYC reminiscent of Escape from New York or a 21st century dystopian video game. It's no accident that the comparisons which leap to mind are cinematic. This is theater for an audience raised in front of the screen. It's like a kick-ass sci-fi martial arts flick, but better, because stunt doubles, video trickery, and digital manipulation have no place here.
What is expertly manipulated is the storytelling, far from linear but perfectly clear. The plot is a simple revenge story. A gang of bloodsuckers has killed Dewdrop's lover, Sally December (Bonnie Sherman). Dewdrop swears to kill them back. But first she must train for combat. Years pass. Finally ready, she earns passage from the shogun of Manhattan (Jon Hoche, very funny in multiple roles) over the bridge to "Brooknam," reluctantly towing the besotted Cert, who, in trusty sidekick fashion, ends up proving invaluable.
The cast of five act, do battle, and move equally well; they're gutsy and dexterous. There are bright lights, puppets, funny videos, music and dance, and maybe, just maybe, one too many fight scenes. Director Robert Ross Parker, together with the playwright, who has staged those excellent fight scenes, creates blast after blast of happy energy.
There are many aspects worthy of note: the sweeping choreography during the first "Interlude" (actually a comic book-style origin story); Dewdrop and Sally's meet-cute scene; Hoche's turn as an arrogant preacher; and the climactic slow-motion battle between Dewdrop and her ultimate nemesis (who that turns out to be, I won't give away), to name a few.
The show has a lot of swearing, and a bit of graphic sex talk, so it's not appropriate for wee ones, but aside from that, audiences of any age should have a grand time seeing this supercharged piece of underworld hotness.
Soul Samurai plays through March 15 at HERE Arts Center, 145 Sixth Ave., NYC.
Photos by Jim Baldassare. First photo: Paco Tolson and Maureen Sebastian. Second photo: Bonnie Sherman.