Soul Samurai @ HERE Arts Center, New York

cast list
Maureen Sebastian, Paco Tolson

directed by
Robert Ross
Manga fans will find plenty to enjoy in Soul Samurai.

It’s full of impossible to master martial arts, bad guy vampires, new age Shoguns and hot lesbians all fighting their way across post apocalypse Brooklyn.

Fortunately the director, Robert Ross, has thrown in a few filmed back-story interludes and stop-action animationsto help make sense of the tale.

Manga, for those unfamiliar with the term, are the comics you see in that section of the bookstore (over by the science fiction) populated mainly by adolescent boys.
For the rest of us, the ones who might pick up a Manga paperback to see what the fuss is all about , but then quickly lose interest, this production is probably not going to win over many new converts to the form.

Soul Samurai is the story of Dewdrop, a female fighter, and her sidekick who travel through a graffiti filled New York in order to get revenge by killing a vampire mobster. Though told in a non-linear style, it is surprisingly easy to follow; not that it matters all that much, as the story exists primarily to frame martial art fights and provide some girl on girl snogging. And there is a whole lot of martial arts fighting. The play is a homage mash up of Hong Kong martial arts and 1970’s Blaxploitation films, with a little comic relief thrown in.

It’s necessary to take this show on its own terms. Sutton Foster is unlikely to tap her way in from stage left. The audience is expecting some ass kicking, rapid fire action and a little comedy with only the absolute minimum of back story required to get to the next fight or lingering lesbian pash – and based on those criteria, the show delivers.

Even so Soul Samurai left me wanting more – and a whole lot less in regards to the fighting scenes. Most of the fighting was well choreographed and performed, but it just kept coming and coming. I fully acknowledge that this is like complaining about all those damn songs when watching a musical, but really, I just wanted a little less of the sound of sword on sword, sword on nunchucks, sword on wooden stake, fist on face, foot in gut and the limited range of grunts and groans that accompanied them.

Qui Nguyen, the writer as well as the fight director, relies too heavily on these scenes to move the action along. The majority of the attacks are handled capably, although the viewer has to imagine the actual blood and guts – a consequence of live theater that I was thankful for. But the fight scenes are endless to the point of numbing the audience; an exception being the final girl on girl samurai sequence which was full of well executed slow motion effects, flowing red fabric and something of an emotional undercurrent. In short, everything but the John Woo pigeons.

The lead is played by Maureen Sebastian, who can act, narrate and eviscerate with equal ease. Her skills and believability carry what emotional weight the show has. It would be a very forgettable evening without her.

Paco Tolson plays Cert, her side-kick, comic foil and a general embodiment of the fanboy audience. His unrequited lust for the heroine, intentionally lame one-liners, bad rapping and “oh no, here we go again” shtick provided most of the fun. He was a b-boy channeling Bob Hope from the Road pictures (and that analogy alone should let you know that I am a tad too old to be the target audience).

Extensive use of video screens for title cards, story hints and the occasional black and white flashback added to the comic book feel of the piece. If the idea of watching a staged comic book doesn’t appeal to you, you should probably skip this one. But if the idea does appeal, then cost of a ticket isn’t much higher than that latest Manga comic you have your eye on and the experience is well worth it at that price.

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