For those among us who remember reading Choose Your Own Adventure books as children, Venus Theatre’s latest production will be a welcome treat. We Are Samurai, a promenade-style play by Daria Miyuki Marinelli and directed by Deborah Randall, allows audiences to choose which narrative threads to follow, which environments to explore, and yes—which of the very edible props to sample.
It starts with the murder of two cats—an act comparable to the abduction of Helen from Sparta or the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. Elias, a kimonoed enchantress and psychic, has arranged the murder in retribution for some unidentified offenses committed in a past life, and Josephine—the proud cat guardian and seeming Donna Reed aspirant—is devastated when she discovers the whiskered carnage.
Conspiring with her iPhone-junkie boyfriend Rocky, Josephine devises a plan to sully and dismantle Elias’s beloved shrine in revenge. Then, upon discovering the wrecked shrine, Elias and her soulmate-through-the-ages Regan up the ante and drown Rocky’s iPhone. And so on, and so on. It plays out like dominoes tumbling, each character losing the thing most central to their identity—to a vengeance that quickly ceases to make sense, ending in, shall we say, the Shakespearean fashion.
But the unique experience of We Are Samurai, more than the script or plot, is what makes this worth exploring.
The program advises audiences to either stay in one spot, follow one character, or move around as they see fit. My strategy was to follow the loudest voice I could hear. After the opening number—one of only two moments in the show utilizing the actual stage—I followed Elias (Caty Benson) to the sidewalk in front of the Play Shack, where she mounted her shrine and began to preach about the perils of our technology-riddled society. When she finished, I came back inside to find Rocky (Patrick Gorirossi) in a womb-like pocket of the floor, donning a plush robe and boasting the interconnectedness granted him by his phone.
I stayed there until Josephine’s (Ann Fraistat) wails from the kitchen pulled me into her nest of microwave popcorn and cat photos. Intentionally or not, I ended up walking in a circuit through the environments—next visiting Regan’s (Daven Ralston) garden, then looping back around.
The relative closeness of the action—with the four environments within easy earshot and often sight of each other—means that while at times scenes play out concurrently, it’s not hard to find the biggest, most dramatic thing that’s happening.
As Elias, Benson gave a standout performance, deliriously eccentric and given over to psychic whims. Gorirossi’s portrayal of Rocky shows the greatest journey, moving from gleeful codependence (with both Josaphine and his iPhone) to something harder and ultimately more sinister.
All of the performers commit fully to their roles, lending credence to the outlandish personalities and reining them in from caricature. Each character represents only one thing—which serves the promenade-style well, arming each environment with a highly specific focus (meticulously designed by Amy Rhodes). Each of the four characters performs some type of ritual within that space, calling our attention to the things we do from history or habit. Often, they’re flanked by silent samurai (Mary Burke-Hueffmeier, Elliott Kashner, and Amy Rhodes) who use movement and props to further illustrate a moment’s impact.
The play makes claims at ancestry and reincarnation, though the plot deals in petty (and absurdly escalating) acts of vengeance. When consequences of each revenge serve only to ignite the next, greater revenge (and what does it mean to sully a shrine full of stone idols with baking flour?), past lives seem little more than alibi.
WE ARE SAMURAI
Closes September 28, 2014
Venus Theatre Play Shack
21 C Street
1 hour, 30 minutes, no intermission
And while we’re addressing symbolism and meaning, we should go ahead and deal with the cats. The opening number, performed in song by the four characters, concludes with each actor falling to the ground and writhing about, howling and mewing like feral animals. Throughout, the cats serve as reminders of a possibility of many lives, of unspoken histories manifesting through people who walk the earth today without them even knowing.
But there are fractals of meaning scattered throughout. An eye for an eye and whatnot. How flimsy justifications can provoke rash, unusual actions. Indeed, the meaning loops back around on the experience itself—how a person’s choice of what to witness actually shapes the play she sees.
Audiences may not get to determine the outcome in this strange and immersive romp, but they can choose their own journey. Not for the shy or the passive perhaps, but We Are Samurai provides a compelling, and certainly unique, evening of participatory theatre at its most accessible.
We Are Samurai by Daria Miyuki Marinelli . Directed by Deborah Randall . Produced by Venus Theatre . Reviewed by Jennifer Clements.
WE ARE SAMURAI
Closes September 28