David Gaines is an exceptionally skilled clown who creates vivid images on stage with nothing more than his own body, a couple of masks and vocalized sound effects and faux dialogue.
His show, “7 (x1) Samurai” is a both a celebration and a spoof of the classic Akira Kurosawa film “The Seven Samurai.” The audience Friday night gave him a warm reception, but I learned from a reliable source that earlier in the week a few viewers walked out. “This is racist (expletive),” one person said before exiting the theater.
There were no walkouts Friday but I can see where some people might be offended by the performance – unless they understand that Gaines is spoofing stock characters in Japanese samurai movies. “The Seven Samurai” happens to be one of my favorite films – I watched the restored Criterion Collection DVD not long ago – and I think Gaines exhibits considerable affection for the supreme achievement of an honorable genre.
He happily takes absurd liberties with the story of peasants who recruit masterless samurais to rid their village of marauding bandits. As he writes in the program: “The relationship of this piece to the original source material is the same as that of Bugs Bunny waving a baton before a cartoon orchestra to an actual symphonic performance of a Wagner opera . . .”
Gaines can depict duels, the flight of arrows and mounted bandits descending on the village so vividly that it plants indelible images in the viewer’s mind. His “dialogue” might use one or two Japanese words but for the most part his vocal performance emulates the guttural delivery of samurai actors with nonsense syllables. But he does toss in an English phrase now and then to get laughs. When a villager sets out to recruit samurai, for example, he comes to a shop with a sign that says “Acme Samurai Service.”
Gaines uses two artfully crafted masks designed by David Knezz. One represents the samurai leader, the other the bandit chieftain. Gaines can deftly switch masks in an instant, although he performs much of the show with his face uncovered. He has, however, applied clown white, which forms a mask of a different sort.
What I find most remarkable about the performance is how expressive Gaines can be with or without a mask. Distinct types and unique characters emerge from the stage even as Gaines indulges his enthusiasm for slapstick comedy.
Gaines’s program notes indicate that this show began as a three-man performance that I’m sure must have been fun to see. But Gaines doesn’t really need any help. He is full command of a piece that showcases the best physical performance I’ve seen at the fringe festival this year.