The Jaded Assassin
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 11, 2007
The explosion of physical theatre on the New York stage in the past few years has been spectacularly exciting. Companies like the Lady Cavaliers and Vampire Cowboy Theatre are incorporating traditional and non-traditional fight sequences within original action plays, while groups such as Parallel Exit and bluemouth explore new ways to use non-dialogue elements to tell stories and convey themes theatrically. The Jaded Assassin, conceived and directed by Timothy Haskell and presented by Big Time Action Theatre, takes another step forward, trying to integrate a variety of fight/action styles and genres within a single full-length play, to create an original "live action opera" (I'm using the analogy of early musical theatre: sung-through plays by Rodgers, Hart, and Hammerstein back in the 1930s were the precursors of a form now very familiar to us; this show is going to serve that same function in the history of physical theatre in the 21st century.)
The Jaded Assassin features an original book by Michael Voyer, which consists mostly of narration plus a little dialogue. The story it tells concerns a mystical warrior named Soon Jal who, thought to be the sole survivor of a dying nation of warriors, becomes the greatest fighter in the world. At the beginning of the play she is in the employ of an Emperor, but they have a falling-out (that's a euphemism: this is a show filled with fighting) and eventually she sets off on her own to face her arch-enemy, a sorcerer named Rektor.
Voyer's text functions mainly as the frame for the play's numerous fight sequences, which are astonishingly diverse and beautifully executed. Soon Jal (played by Jo-anne Lee) uses a fighting style that is rooted in martial arts, but contains a great deal of gymnastic moves and even some balletic aspects; Rod Kinter is the fight choreographer, but it's not always obvious where his work ends and dance choreographer Rebecca Ramirez takes over. Kinter's hand is more clearly evident in the battle scenes that involve weapons; his assistants Marius Hanford, David Solomon Rodriguez, and Jason Schumacher (who all appear in the show) wield a passel of terrifying-looking devices including spears, knives, swords, and other stuff I don't know the names of. Their skill and strength are extraordinary.
There's also a young man named Tonie Tirado whose background includes breakdancing and hip-hop as well as martial arts, and he performs a piece that takes one's breath away: he's supposed to "be" electricity and, against the odds, he actually convinces us that he's just that. It's a knockout segment of a show filled with impressive action.
The whole thing is played on a spare, fighter-friendly set devised by Paul Smithyman, to the accompaniment of taiko drummer Malika Duckworth (who performs off to one side of the stage) and also to a prerecorded soundtrack reminiscent of any number of action movies (sound is by Ryan Holsopple). The first quarter of the show is heavy with exposition, but director Haskell keeps things moving briskly once the action picks up. The tone is sometimes inconsistent, veering occasionally toward self-reference and parody, but most of the time the piece is clearly committed to the tale it wants to tell and, more important, the way it wants to tell it.
The one weakness of The Jaded Assassin, as I see it, is that there's too much narration. I'd love to see Haskell and his collaborators let the action and other choreography carry as much of their story as possible. There's exciting new ground to be charted here; the vocabulary and disciplines of physical theatre have only just begun to stretch into the vibrant and engaging new dramatic form that this show thrillingly anticipates.