The Jaded Assassin
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
August 9, 2006
Timothy Haskell is at it again. The directorial mastermind behind last year's playfully daffy Fatal Attraction: A Greek Tragedy and 2003's spirited stage version of Road House is back, unleashing his soon-to-be patented brand of action theatre on this year's Ice Factory Festival with an awe-inspiring production of Michael Voyer's terrific new action drama, The Jaded Assassin. At first glance, it may seem as if this is just another one of Haskell's self-described "fightsicals": about an hour of its 75-minute running time is taken up by elaborately staged martial arts fights. But, don't judge this book by its cover. Lurking beneath the stage combat is a dark and moving story about loss, vengeance, and renewal that is wonderfully realized by both its author and its director.
As for the title character, she's jaded alright. Her name is Soon-Jal, and she's one of the last remaining members of a nearly extinct tribe of people bred and trained as warriors. When their prideful arrogance angers the gods, they are smitten with a deadly plague that decimates their ranks. Soon-Jal only survives because she's not pure-blooded. But, she's still got her tribe's inherent talent for warfare. After her one true love dies, she hires herself out as a mercenary in order to dull the pain of her despair. When a mysterious, demonic-looking warlord named Rektor sets his sights on killing her, Soon-Jal finds herself on a journey from which she may not return.
It may seem like there's a lot going on, but The Jaded Assassin is more streamlined than it sounds. Most of the aforementioned is backstory exposition that is out of the way within the play's first five minutes. From there, the story focuses on Soon-Jal's mercenary exploits and her inevitable showdown with Rektor. But, there's more to The Jaded Assassin than just slam-bang theatrics. Voyer adroitly explores Soon-Jal's motives for fighting. She may be genetically predisposed to violence, but it soon becomes clear that mass murder possesses a high therapeutic value for her: it's her stress-relieving vice. Instead of drinking or smoking, Soon-Jal kills people. In doing so, she lashes out at the world that took her lover from her prematurely.
But, eventually, The Jaded Assassin puts Soon-Jal on the transformative road towards renewal. In a touching scene late in the play, while daydreaming about her dead lover, she realizes that her vengeance has left her emotionally hollow and that if she is to continue fighting it must be in the name of justice. But, has Soon-Jal made her discovery soon enough to escape the jaws of death?
As executed by Voyer and Haskell, The Jaded Assassin comes off like the theatrical equivalent of Japanese Manga. An omnipresent narrator tells the story verbally, old-fashioned storybook-style, while the action plays out on stage in an endless series of tableaus and fight sequences. The cumulative effect of the tableaus is suggestive of comic book paneling, as the actors contort their faces and bodies to fit the narration. Aside from the non-stop grunting during the fights, the cast almost doesn't speak at all. By giving the actors almost no lines, Voyer spares them the indignity of trying to talk when they're out of breath, while Haskell's tableaus give them an opportunity to rest between battles.
Then, there are the fights, which are dazzling. Rod Kinter's fight choreography includes hand-to-hand combat, swords, staffs, nunchucks, you name it. There's a fun no-holds-barred spirit to his work that carries over to the cast, who face off together with gleeful conviction. Haskell's direction of these sequences also seems to spring from a go-for-broke attitude, as he inventively tries to top himself with every skirmish. The opening battle happens in silhouette behind a backlit scrim. From there, Haskell employs trampolines, wire harnesses, even puppets. In one fight, two of the actors appear to fly through the air and bounce off the pillars of the Ohio Theater!
Throughout, music accompanies the confrontations, be it Malika Duckworth's dynamic Taiko drumming or a potpourri of hard rock classics. One fight, set to Rage Against the Machine's "Killing in the Name," uses a strobe light to enhance a mid-air confrontation between Soon-Jal and a nameless baddie (a scene that nearly induced ecstatic audience pandemonium at the performance I attended). By the time The Wizard, one of Soon-Jal's allies, single-handedly takes on several members of Rektor's dead army—to the tune of Smashing Pumpkins' "Bullet with Butterfly Wings," no less—Haskell & Co. have the audience eating out of the palms of their hands.
The excellent ensemble is led by Jo-anne Lee's ferocious performance as Soon-Jal. Standing at five-foot-nothin', boasting a hipster haircut, and able to convey barely-contained fury behind a pair of dark eyes, she is the kind of adversary one would not want to run into in a dark alley. (By the way: did I mention she can fight her a@% off?) Lee also gives Soon-Jal a hidden vulnerability that backs up one character's description of her as "a lonely girl who needed friends." Aaron Haskell's sympathetic performance as Ouyeng Feng, Soon-Jal's faithful but conflicted page, stands out, as does Nick Arens's tough, sturdy performance as The Wizard. John Ficarra induces chills as Rektor, and Laine D'Souza effortlessly carries the show as The Narrator.
There's not much else to say about The Jaded Assassin except that it is exciting, vibrant theatre. Voyer establishes himself as a talented writer to keep an eye on in the future; and Haskell cements his position as a director who can accomplish anything he wants with an expert mix of skill and imagination. The production only runs until Saturday, so get yourself downtown fast and witness this thrilling tour de force firsthand.