With Soul Samurai, Vampire Cowboys have, once again, proven themselves masters of action-adventure theater. Having conquered sci-fi with last year’s hit, Fight Girl Battle World, writer-director team Qui Nguyen and Robert Ross Parker have joined forces with the Ma-Yi Theater Company to move into more badass territory: a bloody story of vengeance with elements of Blaxploitation, hip hop, and The Warriors mixed in. Set in an apocalyptic New York City overrun by rival gangs (worse news: some of them even have special powers!), Samurai tells the story of Dewdrop (Maureen Sebastian), a librarian-turned-warrior on a mission to take revenge on the gang that killed her lover (Bonnie Sherman). Ever the go-getter, Dewdrop takes on the gang – and anyone else that gets in her way – with just a sword, an attitude (she’s got some serious trash talk skills), and an adorable sidekick, Cert (Paco Tolson).
Even with such a dark premise, the show is infused with geeky glee. From the impromptu breakdancing to the witty battle banter and pop culture references, Samurai is ultimately a very playful presentation. Complementing the violent saga, there are puppets with Avenue Q-style attitude and other multimedia touches, such as a great stop-motion film about a forbidden love between a ninja and a samurai starring, naturally, pieces of fruit.
All playing multiple roles, the five-person ensemble nails the goofy-yet-hip style of Nguyen’s script. If high-flying faceoffs weren’t enough, Samurai’s got solid characters to back it up. For every perfect swordfight or sexy quip, there’s a hilarious moment of vulnerability (Cert’s wannabe bad-boy act never gets old) or self-awareness (a villain commenting on her own “kinkalicious” costume). Particularly successful are the scene-stealing Tolson and Jon Hoche, who adds hilarious swagger to his roles (his pimp-like gang leader and one-eyed preacher shouldn’t be missed). The show seems just as much fun for the actors as the audience. You can’t even fault them when they break into an accidental chuckle.
As with other Vampire Cowboys fare, Samurai is action-packed with fight scenes galore. While it sometimes seems on the verge of being too much, Nguyen’s choreography varies the moves and weapons enough (a knife to the eye was a personal favorite of mine) to keep things fresh. A cleverly-rendered car chase is also impressive. Whether hanging onto the hood of a swerving vehicle or slicing an enemy in two, Sebastian slides through her physically demanding performance with finesse.
The design team perfectly visualizes the show’s themes. The set, a gritty, graffiti-covered NYC, also serves as a prop. A storefront grate, for example, is not just a particularly inspired choice for a curtain, but is also used for surprise attacks and getaways. The costumes, too, match each character well: Cert, the comic relief, dons a hilariously tacky T-shirt and overalls, while our sexy heroine wears biker-chick battlegear that shows some skin.
There are some weak spots in the show. A villain’s origin story, for example, ends on a vague, confusing note. However, small inconsistencies do not ruin what is overall an extremely exciting piece of theater. See Samurai before it’s too late.