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'Samurai 7.0' is funny, poetic, and grand

It's epic. It's slight. It's silly. It's profound. It's ``Samurai 7.0: Under Construction," and it's 70 minutes of quietly dazzling invention by Beau Jest Moving Theater.

Such a description will come as no surprise to the many Boston fans of this company, which went dormant in 1999 after cofounder and artistic director Davis Robinson moved to Maine. We should all be grateful for the sabbatical from Bowdoin College that let Robinson reassemble the troupe for this collaboratively developed play.

``Samurai 7.0" began with the idea of adapting Akira Kurosawa's screen epic ``The Seven Samurai," but, late in the creative process, Robinson learned that Kurosawa's estate wouldn't release the rights. No problem: Beau Jest, hardly known for literal adaptations in any case, just stirred the pot a bit more, with allusions to everything from Shakespeare to cowboys to ``Mamma Mia." Not to mention the seven Pleiades , the Seven Dwarfs, the seven kinds of intelligence, and just about any other sevens you can think of.

The result, more poem than play, ironically manages to convey the mood and tone of Kurosawa's sweeping masterpiece with an eerie, lyrical force that a narrower interpretation couldn't hope to achieve. Credit Judy Gailen for using cheap bamboo screens and other props from Pier 1 with simple but sophisticated visual style. Red fans bloom like blood from the chests of falling warriors (elegantly clad by Seth Bodie in monochrome pajamas); plain poles become mountains, roads, and roofs; bundles of grass, clutched and softly rustled by the actors, grow slowly and magically into a whole field of grain.

Karen Perlow's lighting, too, does much to evoke the visual mood of the film. By turns moodily shadowed and cinematically airy and light, it summons Kurosawa's frames to our mind's eye precisely because it does not attempt to render them exactly. Instead of the cheesy reproduction of a masterpiece, we get an expert artist's respectful but original sketch.

But of course none of the atmospheric cleverness would register without skilled actors to make it work. Here's where Beau Jest's real power comes through: Robinson and his cast (including longtime Jest-ers Larry Coen, Robert Deveau, Elyse Garfinkel, and Lisa Tucker) developed the show by playing with puppets, humming, dancing, and generally improvising ways of bringing it to life. As a result, their work feels fresh and free and alive, even though it has clearly been built with craft and care.

It's very funny, too, even as it's poetic. Take Don Dinicola's allusive, amusing music, or Libby Marcus's puppets. Little toy horses, shadow puppets of cantering bandits, a wizened Grandpa -- all provide not only some hilarious sight gags, but also moments of delicate beauty. To describe them might take away some of the delight of discovering them, not to mention that it's almost impossible to explain just how they can be ridiculous and grand all at once.

But that's what the whole piece does. One second it's quoting Shakespeare, the next it's parodying the Marlboro Man, and then we're back in feudal Japan. It sounds nonsensical, but it all adds up to something that is, simply, tiny and great.

Louise Kennedy can be reached at

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