Soul Samurai: enough with the backstory already

Affair of Honour is presenting Soul Samurai at Studio 1398

Soul Samurai is vampire lesbian a-go-go—but it go-gos on too long. (Photo of Jackie T. Hanlin and Nathania Bernabe)

Before the show, a company member from Soul Samurai lets everybody know that there’s a crisis line that audience members can call if they find anything too upsetting. The script is so awful I very nearly dialed it up. And, in one significant way, this production makes things exponentially worse. But here’s the thing: there are also a number of stellar elements in this mounting.  

Watching Soul Samurai, which uses reams and reams of fight choreography in this interpretation, is a lot like entering a video game or a graphic novel: almost everything is violent, dark, and large. In a kind of dumb-show/ballet off the top, we watch vampires kill Dewdrop’s girlfriend Sally December. In revenge, Dewdrop and her sidekick Cert kill the head vampire, Boss 2K—but, foolishly, neglect to cut off his head. We only learn the characters’ names once they start speaking, of course. We also find out that we’re in a dystopian futuristic version of New York City in which gang lords known as shoguns run the boroughs.

But the basic story only takes four or five minutes to establish. By the intermission—an hour and fifteen minutes later—the plot has advanced not one jot. Nothing new happens. Qui Nguyen’s script only offers backstory, backstory, and more backstory. There’s no momentum.

So, in narrative terms, virtually all of Act 1 is a waste of time. And co-directors Nathania Bernabe and Mayumi Yoshida compound the problem. Remember the reams of fight choreography? Way too much. I’m sure the large cast is having fun, but there’s so much fighting that the plot treads water even longer than the script requires it to.

But…and it’s a big “but”, everybody in this company is clearly committed to this project so, on a number of levels, they do a solid—sometimes excellent—job of staging and performing it.

The players whip all sorts of weapons around—swords, nunchucks, chains, police batons—and they do it with dance-like precision. (Director Bernabe, who also plays Dewdrop, and Jackie T. Hanlin, who plays Sally, are the fight directors.) Folks backflip and one-handed cartwheel all over the place with an impressive level of athleticism and skill, and there are some inventive lifts. I’m a particular fan of the nunchuck drill team.

This production also does a slick job of integrating film and live performance. Nach Dudsdeemaytha directed the film clips and, as we visit Boss 2K before he became a bad guy, for instance, there’s a persuasive sense of realism about them. Chad Cuthbertson contributes an animated sequence in which Dewdrop and Sally meet and it’s fan-fucking-tastic—the innocence embedded in its colouration and sweet, simple style is as refreshing as a dip in a waterhole.

There are also a number of solid performances. Bernabe is always fully committed and credible as Dewdrop. In a persuasively understated performance, Hanlin makes Sally a seductively sexy butch. And Lou Ticzon, who plays Cert, is a talent to watch. In A Vancouver Guldasta earlier this season, Ticzon delivered a heartbreakingly contained performance, and he’s completely different here. In many ways, as written, Cert is a stereotypical Asian nerd, but Ticzon leans so far into the character that he discovers an endearing, surprising clown.

So, as I said, there’s a lot to like; given the flaws in the script and the difficulties of staging such a stylized piece, Soul Samurai could have been much, much worse. But that doesn’t mean I’m recommending it. The successes in its execution mean that Soul Samurai‘s not unbearable to watch—at least at first—but the script is still bad and the production is still overstuffed. The announced start time was 8:00 and, on opening night, we didn’t get out of there until 10:45. An earlier version of this show played the 2017 Vancouver Fringe with a 100-minute running time, which sounds like a much better idea. In this year’s bloated iteration, I was so sick of the fights—even though I appreciated them at first—that, by the end of the evening, I could barely pay attention.

The producing company, Affair of Honour, is young and it’s exploring new territory: storytelling with an emphasis on martial arts. Good for them. But, in their next outing, I encourage Affair of Honour to remember its audience, which has not shown up to watch company members practice their skills; it has come to the theatre to be told a story.

SOUL SAMURAI By Qui Nguyen. Directed by Nathania Bernabe and Mayumi Yoshida. An Affair of Honour production at Studio 1398 on Friday, November 23.  Continues until December 2.Tickets.

 

NEVER MISS A REVIEW: To get links to my reviews plus the best of international theatre coverage, sign up  for FRESH SHEET, my free weekly e-newsletter.  

And, if you want to keep independent criticism alive in Vancouver, check out my Patreon page. Newspapers are dying and arts journalism is often the first thing they cut. Fight back!

About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

Leave a Reply

Sign up—free!—

YEAH, THIS IS ANNOYING. But my theatre newsletter is fun!

Sign up and get curated international coverage + local reviews every Thursday!