Experiencing Venus Theatre’s production of Daria Miyeko Marinelli’s We Are Samurai feels something like when your dad threw you into the deep end so you could learn to swim. At first, it is scary and a bit overwhelming; but when you begin to find your rhythm and get the hang of what’s going on in Deborah Randall’s hallucinatory production, it is pure floating bliss.
It is difficult to distance yourself from this unusual, evocative piece of theatre, because you’re literally in the middle of the action. We Are Samurai is staged “promenade style” meaning that the audience itself moves through the space of Venus’ “Play Shack” in Laurel, Maryland. As you move through the different arenas (“The Worship”, “The Void”, “The Living Room”, “The Kitchen, “The Garden”), a narrative begins to emerge. You stitch together what is happening by absorbing a piece of dialogue here, a snatch of monologue there, a flash of music or a moment of physical action. The result is, by its nature, fragmented, and because there is no specified path for the audience to move through the space, it is inevitable that you will not get the whole story.
But truthfully, the “story” of We Are Samurai, such as it is, is not really the most important thing about the show. Sure, you’ll want to pay attention to the death of two beloved housecats, a young man’s unhealthy obsession with his iPhone, and the danger of a powerful love-inducing perfume – not to mention the silent samurai floating around the space.
But the most evocative moments of the show aren’t found in the arc of the story, but in the twists and turns that the characters’ relationships move through. Elias (Cathryn Benson) is a kimono-clad psychic who can sniff out her one true love, Regan (Daven Ralston), whom she assures has been her destined companion over hundreds of reincarnations throughout history. Meanwhile, Regan’s brother, Rocky (Patrick Gorirossi) insists that nothing is really real until it exists on the Internet, and when he is separated from his beloved smart phone, he demands to know if he still exists. Finally, Rocky’s girlfriend Josephine (Ann Fraistat) is a Donna Reed style domestic whose kitchen is plastered with pictures of her cats, and lays out cucumber sandwiches that the audience can actually eat (I must have indulged in a half dozen). It is the death of Josephine’s poor kitties that sets off a chain of events that, while ultimately tragic, includes moments of absurd comedy along the way.
If it sounds like an Ionesco sushi roll stuffed with Kafka and sprinkled with patchouli oil, you’re in the ballpark. But despite the occasionally incomprehensible bits of narrative, the show is ultimately a pleasure to experience, because however crazy the world of the play becomes, the actors commit to it wholeheartedly.
The chaos of We Are Samurai is belied by the tight, well-rehearsed performances of the cast. Director Deborah Randall extracts sincere feelings of love, jealousy, rage, and grief from underneath the stylized staging. The absurdity of the characters transforming from squatting, singing samurai (yes, singing) into writhing cats is juxtaposed with an earnest, almost severe realism. When Josephine brews tea or Regan cooks rice, there is such a natural, matter-of-fact quality to the action that you almost feel like a voyeur. It is this tension between the everyday and the fantastical that makes We Are Samurai fascinating.
It is much more difficult, and expensive, to see theatre than it is to switch on the TV or plop down in front of some Netflix. The relative inaccessibility of live theatre makes me crave to see something new on stage. So when I come across a show like We Are Samurai, it makes me want to shout from the rooftops that everyone should go see it. Because no matter what you think of the Lynchian surrealism that is Daria Miyeko Marinelli’s play, you can rest assured that you’ve never experienced anything quite like it.
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, with no intermission.