Cowboys with Swords
Samurai 7.0 squeezes a big story into an hour
If reviews were graded solely on creative thought, Samurai 7.0 would get a perfect score. On a small stage with minimal props, the cast successfully conveys scenarios that on film would require elaborate sets. In an hour’s time, the story of the seven samurai is sufficiently told while simultaneously incorporating bits from The Magnificent Seven, Snow White, and the actors’ own stories and situations.
The play suffers only in its telling of the main, dramatic story line of seven warriors coming together to defend a village out of honor, without pay. The grandeur of that tale has required three hours of reel footage in the past. Here it’s squeezed into an hour, at times sacrificing dramatic effect for wit and humor.
To compensate, Beau Jest elaborates on the story, drawing parallels to the lives of actors devoted to their craft, who receive little more than free beer after rehearsal. Every emotionally stirring moment is thus followed up by something off-kilter, bordering on downright hokey, like when the samurai break into a square dance a lá Snow White’s dwarves. At the same time, that’s what the play is supposed to be. It’s a compelling story made silly, and it entertains throughout.
Props are Beau Jest’s forté. It’s not the intricacy or abundance of them, but the way that the few are used in multiple and effective ways that sets Samurai 7.0 apart. Under dim blue lights, the actors’ shake quill-like grass over their heads and blow wind noises from their mouths, eerily simulating a calm breeze before a battle breaks out. Moments later, the same grassy stems become darts when the samurai attack the bandits.
Sticks are used in nearly every scene, whether they’re held in a triangle to denote mountains, or pulled apart and closed to simulate a door. When the villagers need to build a barricade, three actors struggling to turn sticks over each other more than adequately conveys the difficulty of the task. Audience imagination helps, but the actors use their simple props so befittingly that it’s not a requirement.
Over the back of the Samurai 7.0 stage hangs a panoramic projection screen displaying words and pictures. Small horse puppets on long sticks gallop through a mountain valley image as the bandits approach the village. Entire scenes require only grunts, yells, and body language from the actors, while their words are projected behind them. The huge dialogue boxes operate like a narrator, expressing critical lines in an emphatic manner that allows the actors the unique opportunity of putting all their energy into the physical depiction.
Throughout the play, the actors refer to each other by their real names, relating the scenario of the samurai, cowboys, or whatever it is they are back to their real-life identity as actors honorably devoted to performing. It takes skill to intentionally break character while maintaining your true self as an element of the play, only to drop back into medieval Japan or the 19th-century American West seconds later.
Director Davis Robinson and the Beau Jest Theater could write a text book on conveying a grand scenario with only people and a few well-placed props. It’s that minimalist approach that allows them to shift a story, sometimes every few seconds, around the world and across centuries. Although certain scenes and lines seem askew, it’s clear that each word had the thought of a group mind put into it, and every time the play seems to slip, it quickly rights itself.
Samurai 7.0 is a fascinating piece. The plot is taken from an epic story, but the story is resoundingly original.
Samurai 7.0 • Piccolo Spoleto • $20, $15 seniors and students • (1 hour 15 min.) • May 31 at 3 p.m.; June 2 at 5 p.m.; June 3 at 8 p.m.; June 4, 9 at 6 p.m.; June 5, 6, 7 at 2 p.m.; June 5, 8 at 9 p.m. • Footlight Players Theatre, 20 Queen St. • 554-6060