According the code of Bushido, a Samurai should be utterly loyal to his Lord, but some men in feudal Japan refused to kowtow to tradition, and tales of rogue Samurai or “Ronin” fill Japanese folklore and have a great appeal to American audiences too. Movies, manga and video games all have iconic stories of master-less swordsmen, so it’s not surprising to find an off-off Broadway show based on this premise too.
Deadly She-Wolf Assassin at Armageddon takes clear inspirations from classic samurai manga like Lone Wolf and Cub. Our hero wanders feudal Japan with his young son in tow, on a quest for vengeance. Although there are numerous direct references to the Lone Wolf and Cub stories, She-Wolf is a unique piece with its own distinct performance style.
The plot is complicated on an epic scale. The Rogue Assassin (Played by Yoshi Amao) has left the service of The Shogun (Rick Ebihara) and turned against his former master. The Shogun is a cowardly and cruel man, more concerned with maintaining his grip on his power than with actual patriotism. The Shogun, as the back-story reveals, has set his underling Iyagu (Perry Yung) to dispatch a series of Japan’s deadliest killers after The Rogue Assassin, all of whom have failed. As the play begins, The Shogun announces that he has no choice but to hire a group of foreign assassins.
Iyagu is every bit the villain as The Shogun, however he is secretly plotting against his master. As the show begins, Iyagu sends his final agent, The She-Wolf (Ai Ikeda), to secretly aid The Rogue Assassin against the minions of The Shogun. However The She Wolf is also manipulating The Rogue Assassin’s son (Played alternately by Jet Yung and Bradley Fong) to suit Iyagu’s ends. All of these plotlines clash in an action-packed climax.
The story is conveyed through a mixture of dance and martial arts. The dialog is all delivered by a single performer, Marina Celander, who does a superb job performing a distinct voice for each character while the dancers engage in dumb show. The cast is composed of an eclectic group of agile dancers and powerful martial artists. Amano and Ikeda are particularly effective as the central duo.
On top of the artistic blend of performance styles there is also a great deal of action too. As a samurai story there is of course sword fighting (Choreographed by Amano), but many of the characters use unconventional martial arts styles (Choreographed by Emmanuel Brown), each suited to their personality.
The She-Wolf fights with a lady-like folding fan and a long scarf that entangles her foes. Then there are the three foreigners… When this trio of barbarians arrive, they turn out to be comically outrageous stereotypes of an American cowboy, a Chinese monk, and an African king, each with his own quirky fighting style. This is simultaneously a spoof of these cultures while also being a nod to Japan’s own xenophobia.
Deadly She-Wolf occasionally plays itself for laughs, but it’s usually deadly serious. When the wacky foreigners aren’t around, the plot deals with Iyagu’s scheming as he pits the various factions against one another.
Even when no one is fighting, it is still a visually striking production. The stage is kept bare except for a streak of blood-red calligraphy, while lighting and smoke help create the illusion of different locations. The costumes are period appropriate but have aspects of modern culture. She-Wolf is dressed in punk/fetish gear, and the three foreigners are each decked out in a parody of their nation’s traditional garments (The American is a combination of General Custer and Colonel Sanders played with charming arrogance by Luca Nicora). Through it all an Afro Asian band plays a combination of Jazz and traditional Japanese music (Composed by Fred Ho).
Fred Ho & Ruth Margraff’s script hits all the beats of a good samurai tale; there is action, scheming villains, and noble heroes willing to sacrifice their lives. But there is also some very modern political rhetoric that seems to draw a connection between the end of the Edo period and the dawn of Marxism. This is brief but feels out of place with the rest of the story, standing out as the one rough spot of the show.
Despite the violence, Deadly She-Wolf Assassin at Armageddon is a child-friendly show (Although targeted at adults). It will delight fans of Samurai comic books and films, and it does so with a uniquely theatrical style. It is playing now through June 2nd at La MaMa in Manhattan.
Photo credits: Bradley Fong as The Boy and Yoshi Amao as The Rogue Assassin: photo by Corky Lee. Ai Ikeda as She-Wolf: photo by Kenji Mori