Kung Fu Hustle

It's a perfunctory rule that you cannot, despite advances in digital printing, judge a book by its cover. One could therefore safely assume that an Off-Off-Broadway show cannot be judged by its postcard. I can attest that this is mostly true. But every rule must have an exception, and, lucky me, I was the one to find it. The postcard is for Big Time Action Theater and David Solomon Rodriguez's production of The Jaded Assassin at the Ohio Theater, and it instantly tells you everything you need to know about the tone of the show. This image of actress Jo-Anne Lee snarling and ready to strike with a katana sword can only elicit two reactions. The first is "I don't care what it takes, I'm going," and the other is "I don't care how much you want to, I'm definitely not going."

Part play, part martial arts exhibition, The Jaded Assassin was conceived by director Timothy Haskell as "the world's first original action play." Haskell's creation is a karate chop aimed at the excitable little kid in your heart, with a follow-up jab to your sense of irony. It is a kung-fu movie come to life onstage.

The story, scripted by Michael Voyer, is culled from just about every kung fu film cliché imaginable (as when the play humorously simulates dubbed dialogue) and is tailored to include as many martial arts battles as possible. We follow an ardent mercenary, Soon Jal, who is hired by the emperor of an "ancient" (and ambiguous) Asian country wracked by civil war. Seeking vengeance for a murdered lover, Soon Jal takes it upon herself to put an end to the meaningless war—but first she must quell the lust for war within herself. This necessitates killing every nameless soldier, elemental spirit, or zombie that has the misfortune of crossing her path.

I would estimate that 40 minutes of Jaded Assassin's 70-minute run time is, as the show's premise promises, fight choreography. These intricately structured fights were choreographed by Rod Kinter and typically feature Soon Jal fighting everyone else in the cast. The play demands several different fighting styles—hand-to-hand, sword fighting, quarterstaff, and even simulated Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon-inspired aerial combat—and the cast performs them with considerable elegance. To further the kung fu film aesthetic, the melees are underscored either by intense, live taiko drumming or delightfully anachronistic contemporary music.

While critically appraising the production's script, design, and acting by normal theatrical standards would surely miss the point, it should be noted that Kinter, scenic designer Paul Smithyman, and lighting designer Nick Hohn augment the paper-thin narrative by keeping things simple. The focus here is the fighting, and everyone involved is clearly aware of that.

It is difficult not to single out Jo-Anne Lee as Soon Jal, because, much like Uma Thurman in the film Kill Bill, so much of the play rides on our belief that her character is an unhinged killing machine. Lee does not disappoint. Her reactions and her line readings are appropriately hilarious, but most important, her physical stamina is almost mesmerizing. Soon Jal is involved in nearly every fight scene in the show, and you never sense that Lee is even winded.

The rest of the cast matches the intensity of Lee's performance very well. Marius Hanford in particular, as Rektor, the villainous ninja/sorcerer, convincingly conveys the fervor of a punk rocker. Hanford and the rest of the ensemble are qualified and adaptable enough to perform the impressive choreography despite a lot of costumes, props, and even puppets.

I enjoyed the concept and execution of this show a great deal, which is why it pains me to admit that it's not a perfect production. In fact, the play's two largest drawbacks lie in the core concept: in a show that is mostly stage combat, the stage combat must be flawless. The cast members met the demands of the choreography most of the time, but when an audience has been watching 40 minutes of fight choreography, a missed block or even a split-second delay becomes painfully obvious.

The other problem is that watching the unbeatable Soon-Jal pound away at faceless thugs for over an hour gets tedious. As in the boring Matrix sequels, if a martial arts fighter is too invincible for too long it becomes, well, too much. Finally, there is a bizarre, even existential twist at the end of the play that is more likely to confuse than to blow anyone's mind.

So does The Jaded Assassin live up to its enticing postcard? The company executes the choreography with lethal precision, but the production's high style can't compensate for its rough spots.

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