Float aside, Elphaba! Your hydraulic brand of defying gravity is no longer needed. Forget the winged cars, Foy Inventerprises, and jungle vines, too - none of them is necessary to become airborne these days. No, all you need is a slow strobe light, a couple of superbly timed jumpers, and - most important - Timothy Haskell.
The sorcery employed by Off-Broadway's own Quentin Tarantino about halfway through his latest rollicking "fightsical," The Jaded Assassin, is one of the oldest special effects in existence. But ain't it a kick in the head (and the chest, the stomach, and several other even more sensitive regions) to see it again as if for the first time? To believe once more - if only for one piercing minute - that actors can truly fly of their own volition?
For his unique abilities to turn actors into real-life superheroes and to reduce even the grown men in the audience at the Ohio Theater to fits of giddy, schoolgirl giggling, conceiver-director Haskell should either receive a medal or turn himself over for observation. Were The Jaded Assassin an isolated incident, I might suggest the latter. But as Haskell has demonstrated over the last few years with Road House and Fatal Attraction: A Greek Tragedy, he's no fly-by-night talent.
With a bottomless theatrical vocabulary, a ruthless knowledge of pop culture (including an appreciation for anime, manga, and straight-out action that rivals that of some men for fine wine), and a gnawing sense of humor, he habitually delivers far richer, more creative visual fare than is de rigueur on Broadway these days. Give him a tireless fight choreographer (Rod Kinter) and a dozen nuclear-powered performers, and there's little he can't do.
Except, as it turns out, make a great play from The Jade Assassin.
By heavily utilizing silhouettes, Bunraku and shadow puppets, and even a taiko drummer, Haskell ensures that every second of Michael Voyer's cluttered melodrama of obligation and revenge will be thrillingly dramatized. But even he can't make particularly succulent hash of the story of Soon-Jal (Jo-anne Lee), one of the last of a tribe of violence-bred mercenaries, who must save her land from a plague by defeating the evil Rektor (John Ficarra), who is also...
Well, it doesn't matter. Nor is it of any noteworthy importance that Soon-Jal is recovering from the loss of the love of her life (David Solomon Rodriguez). Or that her companions are her doting helper Ouyeng Feng) and a mysterious wizard (Nick Arens), who bear secrets and curses of their own. Of only slightly more importance is the sultry narrator (Laine D'Souza), who holds the key to all their fates in the book from which she reads the story (which is packed with deadpan-requiring lines like "There were no secrets to war; there was only death to those who sought them").
As Voyer is attempting to install his play within a grander performance tradition, such lines are not necessarily out of place. But as written, performed, and sadly directed with such dedicated tongue-in-cheek fervor, you never accept them as organic parts of these characters' lives. The actors' striking comic-book poses (often with their jaws anchored to the floor) roughly every 11 seconds similarly indicates that very little of this should truly be taken seriously.
This Richter scale-registering distrust of earnestness is Haskell's primary flaw as a director, and it's not an insignificant one. That a show this confrontationally visceral can contain half a dozen major fight scenes (and another half-dozen smaller ones) and never get your blood pumping for more than two minutes at a stretch signals the danger of trying to subvert a well-known form without solidly anchoring it in reality.
Voyer's nonsense story, which is all too parodically astute, is a difficult hurdle to overcome. So are actors who bring equal parts balletic grace and rough-and-tumble rambunctiousness to the fight scenes, but with spoken lines never pursue detail when declaration is good enough. (D'Souza, relegated to a chair behind her giant book for most of the evening, is the thankful, velvety exception.) These are the types of issues Haskell must learn to address should he continue to pursue his directing career (which he should). However fluent Kinter is in punches, kicks, rolls, and tumbles, and however many different contexts Haskell finds for them, any show needs more to hang on.
Not that anyone venturing to The Jaded Assassin (which is running only through Sunday) will expect much more than the live-action marriage of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Kill Bill that Haskell delivers. But why stop at just fulfilling expectations? Even the best magicians can thrive only so long on just one bag of tricks.
The Jaded Assassin