Soul Samurai is mad ambitious.
It’s the latest offering from Affair of Honor, a small stage production house that employs fight choreographers and stunt people as actors and reaps the benefits of doing so. They’ve done some incredible fight work in the past and usually put on a visually striking show and this one is no exception.
This play is about a young woman named Dewdrop who is trained as a samurai after a bunch of vampires move into New York and everyone slowly got pseudo-Japanese for reasons that are never adequately explained. The main vampire dude looks Maori maybe? Is he a weeaboo? Don’t worry if it doesn’t make sense. Nothing else does, either.
Affair of Honor provides their usual high-quality routines, though, and if you haven’t seen a show by them before Soul Samurai is worth checking out for that alone. These people – Nathania Louise Bernabe, Jackie.T. Hanlin, Lou Ticzon, Jordan Svenkeson, Eryka Alanna, and Jarelle De’Von Hepburn – know what they’re doing and know their way around a sword. The fights are fantastic and sometimes breathtaking, and there’s a number of dance routines that are equal parts elegant and terrifying.
The lighting and sound design are also pretty decent, so far as these go. The music selection is driven by high-energy fight music throughout with some slick hip-hop thrown in for good measure. The crew works with what they have and make it work, and the result is something that is hard to look away from.
Every member of the cast also gives it their all and almost manages to make the dialogue and script work, but… well, this is where it begins to fall apart.
If you are looking for good script work you will not find it here.
There’s a movie called My First Mister where one character explains to another that swear words have a place in language, and that is used for emphasis. That’s the proper fucking way to use vulgarity. Most people get this without being told – it’s a learned skill. Most writers, however…
Everyone swears in this show. A lot. To the point where none of the dialogue sounds like anything real people say. It also doesn’t help that the main romance between lesbians was very clearly written by a cis-gender man who was maybe been in the same room as lesbians in the past but has maybe never spoken with them. Spoken at them, maybe?
There is a metric shit-tonne of casual racism, as well. It’s probably meant to be endearing between the romantic leads the same way that the casual swearing is meant to sound tough, but it just comes across as fake and robs the characters of their dignity and believability.
I’ve seen a lot of post-apocalyptic stories lately in everything from comics to movies to the news, consuming dystopia after dystopia. Even when the story doesn’t spell out how the world fell into whatever hell it has become in that narrative, there is a sense that the characters know and that you could piece it together in hindsight. Not so, here.
The mythology is all over the fucking map and doesn’t make a lick of sense. The head samurai is not Japanese and people declaring themselves shoguns in New York implies a certain level of, well, something. We need to know what that something is but it doesn’t feel like either the characters or the world or the writer has any idea of what’s going on outside of the immediate now.
A big part of acting is learning what to do between lines – how to convey and live in a world that isn’t real, but feels like it is. Nothing here feels real because nothing happens outside the script, and no part of this makes any sense because of it. Forgettable caricatures prance about on stage and are given more life than they deserve by a talented cast before fading back into nothing.
It’s infuriating because I fucking want to like this.
For fuck’s sake, it’s a story about a lesbian couple torn apart by vampires as they take over New York and the fall out later, when the survivor pulls herself together enough to seek out revenge by becoming a Samurai and going on a rampage. Everything about that sentence is awesome, so where is that awesome in this story?
The vampires lack any real menace or sense of power here, which is also a problem. Unless given supernatural power, humans fighting vampires tend to end with humans becoming snacks unless they can somehow outwit the vampire. A vampire with Samurai hand-to-hand and sword training should be one of the scariest things wherever they happen to be, but they fall by the dozens here without anyone breaking a sweat and the fucking sidekick takes out the big badass vampire shogun.
You have no idea how badly I want to like this.
The cast is limited because you need people that know their way around combat for this to work. The result here is that almost everyone plays multiple characters with a couple of costume changes to mark them, and they cover these changes by using pre-taped segments to tie the story together or to give us background on characters. This is all fine and good and it’s a good idea that is hamstrung because none of these scenes actually explain anything or evolve anyone; they become a weird disconnect where you hope they’re going somewhere because the cast is so good, but ultimately go nowhere because the writer is not.
Soul Samurai is a big unholy mess of a thing, and yet… it is mad fucking ambitious. It has as intense a car chase as you’re ever going to see on stage and, again, that fight choreography is gorgeous and the acting is so much better than this script deserves. Affair of Honor is capable of doing amazing things and you can see brilliance shine through here and there. While the ideas are great and the performances awesome the script fails the production on every level.
If you want to see a talented cast and crew struggle with a script, this is your show.
Soul Samurai tickets run for $14 a pop and it’s playing at the Cultch (1895 Venables Street in Vancouver) at the following times:
Tuesday, Sept 12, 8:50 pm (Half Price Show)
Friday, Sept 15, 7:00 pm
Sunday, Sept 17, 5:35 pm
You can buy tickets by clicking here.