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Review: 7 (x1) Samurai

By Tom McElfresh · May 31st, 2009 · Fringe

Critic's Pick

Add this title to your Fringe “must see” list, offered through Saturday at Gabriel’s Corner. Go prepared to laugh with little letup. A single actor/athlete uses well-honed skills to both re-tell and lampoon Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 film, The Seven Samurai, in which good prevails over evil but at great cost to both losers and winners.

The seriously talented solo performer is David Gaines, a small, slightly graying, compactly built man who combines the balance and grace of a ballet dancer with the rubber-jointed agility of a master tumbler and the strength, stamina and lung capacity of a marathoner. He strolls on casually, bows, suddenly tenses, spins around and is off on an hour-long, headlong race through the Kurosawa masterpiece. He never stops leaping, galloping, dancing, flipping masks on and off, falling down and bouncing up again — all the while accompanying specific actions with an astonishing variety of vocal sound effects, even some dialogue in grunted Japanese (maybe that should be pseudo-nese) and an occasional well-timed punch line in pidgin English.

You know the plot: It's the same one that Hollywood remade in 1960 as The Magnificent Seven, transplanting the story from medieval Japan to 19th-century America and featuring Yul Brynner, Charles Bronson, Steve McQueen and Eli Wallach among others.

Poor starving villagers are terrorized by brigands who steal their crops, kill their men, rape their women and then hover around waiting to start another cycle of terror once new crops are harvested.

The desperate villagers have no money to hire protection. But they bargain food and shelter to some unemployed good guy Samurai — sort of freelance Sir Lancelots — in exchange for protection. A major battle ensues. The village and the villagers take a beating but prevail.

Gaines has studied, performed and taught miming and clowning for years, even taught in a mime academy in Paris. But, hark, folks, this is not the dreary, self-focused drivel mimes usually get off on: No peeling invisible bananas or running into invisible walls. This is mimetic acting melded with sound and get-down clowning to simultaneously tell Kurosawa’s tale and kid the pants off of it.

Using hands, face, expression, gesture, a little makeup, two masks and enormous ingenuity, Gaines introduces individual peasants (men, women, even a thumb-sucking baby). He delineates a black-hearted brigand leader in a red-striped mask and differentiates neatly among his seven Samurai: the casual guy, the vain show-off, the white-masked leader dripping irony, the sleeper who goes from dream state to swords slashing in zero seconds, the doofus and the others.

Teaching one of the peasants to pull a bow and fire an arrow is hysterically funny, plus you’ll think you see the arrow fly across the stage. Teaching the peasants how to dig a trap is hilarious and demonstrating that the hole is several hundred feet deep is even more so.

Let me mention only a few more of the 1,000 illustrative details Gaines inserts to bring the story to life. A wind comes up. He shows us that with a tiny detail from the movie, a shot in which a hanging sign creeks as it swings back and forth. He shows one fighter sharpening the edges of his hands on a grinding wheel, complete with eerie vocal sound effects. When a Samurai hammers on the locked gates of the village, I’m positive I saw the carvings in the wood. Gaines is just that good. And that funny.

In a pre-Fringe interview Gaines said, “Imagine mime that isn’t pretentious and clowning that isn’t childish.” Man, did he get that right.

Performed at Gabriel's Corner through June 6. See performance dates and preview here.



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