Friday, February 20, 2009

Soul Samurai

Photos/Jim Baldassare

Qui Nguyen's latest play is badassss, tagging on two extra s's for Soul Samurai--though they could just as easily be demonstrative of the blaxploitation or symbolic of the very sexy asses involved. And while Nguyen samples from various genres (he accurately cites Kill Bill and Shaft, though there's also a bit of The Warriors's laughable panache), he's only imitating his own examples. All the staples of classic Vampire Cowboys Theatre are here: the introductory video ("Ninja, please!"), the montage (flag-twirling works well for transitions), and the hypertrophied wit ("Being able to kill is cash and yo' ass is broke"). Their hero grows unstoppable when she learns to no longer fear death; Nguyen and his director, Robert Ross Parker (who has to justify all that manic energy), have become bulletproof by throwing all their inhibitions away. (Cue the star-crossed stop-motion tale of an apple samurai girl and an orange ninja boy; there are puppets and pantomimes, too.)

It'd be accurate to say that Soul Samurai is played to the hilt except that this group is working with a pure blade--nothing slows this show down. After an introduction from G.I. Joe action figures Snake-Eyes and Storm Shadow, the lights rise on a grindhouse-looking slum, all graffiti and metal shutters. Boss 2K (Sheldon Best) is in the middle of getting the best of Cert (Paco Tolson) when the hero, Dewdrop (Maureen Sebastian) shows up: "I'm the surprise, bitch." One dispatched villain later, and we're cutting to a week ago, as Dewdrop faces off with the pimped out Shogun of Manhattan, Grandmaster Mack (Jon Hoche); ten minutes later, we're tripping back to the real origin story, as Dewdrop's lover, Sally December (a white and sassy afroed Bonnie Sherman), gets killed by 2K and his gang of Longtooths (that'd be vampires). An interlude, "The Completely Uninteresting Tale of Marcus Moon," features a squeaky clean, nervous, and high-pitched Marcus (Best), who explains (as a masked Hoche pantomimes his actions) how he became such a completely interesting killer.

Something's always being flipped, which keeps Nguyen's fight choreography feeling fresh. One minute our heroes are wandering through the pitch-black subway tunnels, the next they're ragging on preachers (think Jon Tuturro in The Big Lebowski meets the Preacher comics); one flashback spoofs Mr. Miyagi as Master Leroy Green (Best) trains Dewdrop, another riffs on Avenue Q as political activist Sally December turns her back on a comically portrayed Puppet Earth (Hoche). Not only is it dazzlingly creative, but it's also never confusing: Sarah Laux and Jessica Wegener's sick costumes make it easy to distinguish bad guys from good guys, and Nick Francone's set and lighting make for clear, quick transitions from location to location (projections provide the details).

And then, of course, there's the acting: Tolson, who has always been the most successfully geeked out Vampire Cowboy (as the incompetent supervillain The Mole, or as the arrogant robot LC-4), gets to play an overconfident b-boy--who now actually has the skills to back his shit up when he says "My name's Cert--as in Death Cert . . . ificate." He's matched by the up-and-coming Best, who not only changes his voice, but actually carries himself differently from role to role. Everybody has their moment: for Hoche, it's the level of expression in his eyes while playing the Masked Marcus; for Sebastian and Sherman, it's their sustained attitude--they're not just posing when they say they're going to "kill you hard, slow, and sexy-like."

At last, Vampire Cowboys Theatre has found the right balance of action and adventure, creativity and control. Soul Samurai isn't just their best show, it's one of the best shows in the city, and until you see it, you'd better just shut yo' mouth.

No comments: