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Robinson's 'Poor Theater' Offers Rich Staging of Samurai Film

Story posted June 01, 2006

It's common enough to find plays adapted for film, but rarely does it go the other way around. How can one replicate the selective eye of the camera or compete with high-jinx special effects?

These challenges were just the starting ground for Davis Robinson, associate professor of theater and dance, when he began creating Samurai 7.0: Under Construction, a highly imaginative new work by his Beau Jest Moving Theater company in Boston.

The ensemble-driven work, which premiered in 2006, in the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, draws its inspiration from Akira Kurosawa’s classic film, “The Seven Samurai.”

Kurosawa’s film is a spare, beautiful study of character. A motley band of seven samurai is assembled to protect a poor village of farmers from bandits; when their mission is complete, they disband. No special effects – just gorgeous camera angles, fulsome character development and what is widely considered to be one of the best battle scenes ever filmed.

“Like the samurai of the film, I loved this idea of pulling together an eclectic team of people in a common cause for no money, for rice,” laughs Robinson, who spent much of his 2005-2006 sabbatical developing the work. “It is very much like theater. We work for months with a common vision, for communitas, for nothing. And when the story is told, we are done. It is ephemeral.”

Robinson founded the award-winning Beau Jest company in 1984. His vision was to create original works by a company of movement-theater artists. Their works examine the compelling, often comic, paradoxes of being human – whether recasting such classics as War of the Worlds, or Ubu Roi or developing outlandish satires of modern life – such as Motion Sickness, a comical look into the lives of five people facing change. Productions often blend theatrical traditions, including mime, shadow puppetry, dance, standup and improvisation.

Actors and bamboo
The actors suggest place and scope with movement and simple props.

“In Samurai, I was drawn to the visual storytelling, to the creative challenge of adapting a three-hour film to a one-hour stage production,” says Robinson. “We wanted to increase our physical vocabulary.”

The visual elements of the film have been transformed by physical innovation and fine stagecraft. A circular shadow-screen downstage represents a village hut, but when lit, it becomes the backdrop for shadow puppets. Simple hand props – such as bamboo, grass, twigs – become a way of framing out the action, suggesting place, and even creating an illusion of distance.

“It is what is called ‘poor theater,’” says Robinson, “and to me that is the real joy of theater. If I hold my hand like this to represent a wall or a tree, I am asking the audience to imagine with me. That level of play is what I find most rewarding.”

Since joining Bowdoin’s faculty in 1998, Robinson has been able to work with members of Beau Jest only sporadically. This production, he says, gave him an opportunity to reconnect with members of his troupe and blend life and art.

Fight rehearsal
Beau Jest 'old timer' Lisa Tucker, left, spars with newcomer Robin Smith '05 during rehearsal.

"In the film, there are old timers and a couple of young people in this group of samurai," notes Robinson. "So I called up my core group of 'old timers' and also added three young actors I had worked with at Bowdoin. We paralleled that theme of actors coming out of retirement to create a kind of show-within-a-show. There are places where we break out of the story and cut to the story of the actors themselves, then we pop back into the play."

Samurai 7.0: Under Construction was directed by Davis Robinson, with set design by Judy Gailen, lighting design by Karen Perlow, music by Don Dincola, costumes by Seth Bodie, and puppets by Libby Marcus. The original cast featured Robinson with Beau Jest regulars Lisa Tucker, Larry Coen, Elyse Garfinkel, Bob Deveau, and new members, Bowdoin alumni all - Robin Smith '05, Scott Raker '05, and Jordan Harrison '04.

Robinson says the show is designed for touring and he hopes to bring it to Maine in the near future. "We like to share our works with as many different audiences as possible," he ways, "and touring allows us to keep fine-tuning the production."

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It is what is called 'poor theater.' I am asking the audience to imagine with me.
— Davis Robinson