February 18, 2005

Curse of the Crying Heart delivers a good time—with a flying karate kick

The House Theatre has the ticket this Valentine's Day season for the happy, the bitter, and the oblivious. Its high-flying, high-kicking Curse of the Crying Heart, the second installment in the Valentine Trilogy, will knock your besotted socks off.

Last year writer Nathan Allen, director Dennis Watkins, and the House ensemble wooed critics with the rockabilly Western mish-mash San Valentino and The Melancholy Kid. This year the theme is feudal Japanese epic, and Allen and Watkins play it for all it is worth—there is a ninja fight within seven minutes of the show's start.

Allen plays Sorrow, the Masked Samurai, who is in love with the country's princess, Sakurako (played too young by Maria McCullough). "Known as well for his melancholy music as his murder and thievery," Sorrow rocks out on guitar and vocals every few scenes. Upon hearing that a ronin contest is being held to find the most worthy bodyguard for the princess, Sorrow heads into bloody battle and emerges the victor. His prize is constant presence at Sakurako's side ("Sayonara sadness / konichiwa love," go the lyrics). The princess and Sorrow previously had a relationship, but since their parting, she has become engaged to Goroda (Jake Minton), and it is their upcoming wedding that has stirred political tensions throughout the country and put Sakurako's life in danger.

One might say that the play is about Sakurako's conflicting desires: to empower Japan through her marriage to Goroda, whom she likes and respects, or to be with Sorrow, the man she loves. But with the start of the second half, the plot becomes increasingly difficult to keep in sight, and the play becomes infinitely more exciting. Sakurako's aunt tells a convoluted legend relating the long-cursed properties of Sorrow's sword, and frenzied action ensues because one of Goroda's advisors is actually a conniving demon, The Black Ghost.

The Black Ghost is after Sorrow's sword, which makes the bearer invincible in battle. The masked samurai fights him unsuccessfully, Sakurako meets a tragic end, and right when you think that a play with ninjas shooting blow darts at each other is pretty exciting, there's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon-style fighting! Sakurako's aunt and uncle fight the Black Ghost while being hoisted on rigging wires. Their movement owes much more to dance than martial arts, and is thrilling to watch as it takes over the relatively small performance space. Curse is no longer a theater play, but Cirque du Soleil set to rock music.

As Sorrow belts out one last angry love song, the cast raises their fists in the air and snaps their fingers, and the audience mimics the action. "Darkness is my light / I've just begun to fight / So stay tuned," he croons, and the audience erupts into whistling and cheers.

Part of the success of the production certainly relies on the fact that the company is as youthful as its audience. House knows who they are catering to: kids who are much more excited by seeing people fly around the room performing karate kicks to a throbbing bass line than by following the intricacies of a feudal Japanese epic. Make no mistake though—Curse of the Crying Heart is not a send-up of its genre. Rather, it takes the genre and subverts some of its foundations.

The rock-pop musical selection (direction and arrangement by Kevin O'Donnell, lyrics by Allen, and a band called the Trick Hearts) is appealingly generic. The songs, which don't advance the plot much but are clearly grounded in it, have lines like, "Don't say it's / Too little too late / We can work it out," and "I don't want to be your hero / I just want to be your champion." These lyrics are not clichéd, but in fact totally appropriate in light of the plot—Sorrow is a notorious ronin, after all. Only when Maroon 5 sing similar words do they seem inexcusably trite.

Allen and Watkins earn kudos for putting together such a fun performance. Watkins retains control over an extremely fast-moving, wide-ranging scenario, and his direction takes a few fresh twists. Allen is the visible superstar in all this—onstage for much of the show, gamely switching between singing and delivering his lines, wearing the triple crown of playwright, actor, and songwriter. In the end, Curse may not make a lot of sense, but it is a lot of fun.