Monday, March 28, 2011

Vampire Cowboys: The Inexplicable Redemption of Agent G

Yesterday was a long and varied day, consisting of a matinee of Trav S.D.'s Tent Show Tetragrammaton (4 shows remaining!), celebrating World Theater Day at Dixon Place, a quick swing by a gallery opening, finally culminating in the opening performance of Vampire Cowboys' The Inexplicable Redemption of Agent G at Incubator Arts. And - my inamorato did most of this with what I worry is some sort of mildly broken arm.

But this post is going to be all about the Vampire Cowboys show, which is a rare and perfect thing.

There are many different kinds of playwrights - but I think if you take a look at all of our work, it's all autobiography, isn't it? In some way or another, even if nobody else knows. Even if the play is about pirates or serial killers or ape men or ninjas or aliens or any other fantastical thing that has no literal correlation with the life of the person who is writing, who - chances are, was never a ninja or a pirate. I've written tons on this blog about how I am most comfortable with metaphor, as both a reader and a writer. I've never had much interest in superheroes, but I love fairy tales. I often say how literalism feels sometimes over-specific and unrelatable, and often leaves me cold (but not always). I also think that audiences' perception of theater can be shockingly conservative, and there are people who if they don't see a living room set get instantly nervous.

There are a lot of ninjas and superheros and fighting (awesome, gorgeous fighting) in Qui Nguyen's plays. It's what he does. They're always beautifully staged and realized by his collaborators, and here, too. The Inexplicable Redemption of Agent G is a personal, explosion in the genre factory, comic book style battle royale between playwright Nguyen (beautifully played by African-American actor William Jackson Harper) and the story of his cousin and adopted brother's crushingly tragic journey from Vietnam to Arkansas. Writing is hard. Writing truthfully about stuff that really matters to us is brutally hard. So the fight is epic. Qui Nguyen (and "Qui Nguyen") brings out every stylistic weapon in his and director Robert Ross Parker's arsenal.

Genre flourishes abound - noir and western and spy and martial arts rattle hilariously around questions of race. There's a rap war between Qui Nguyen and David Henry Hwang (who wrote a play "Yellow Face" in which there was a character "David Henry Hwang" which in turn parodied the Miss Saigon casting controversy), there's a large muppety creature called the "Gooky Monster" who tries to school Nguyen in what an "Asian" play should be about. The best response to all this is Nguyen's own: "This is a Vampire Cowboy show, bitch!". It's purposely and hilariously full of narrative and racial clich├ęs. I don't know when the last time I saw a show in which I laughed so much consistently throughout. But it's not just a comedy (though, comedy is so fucking hard, calling anything "just" a comedy, isn't fair either), it digs awfully deep.

With all the lovely choreography, all the hilarious meta flourishes (not only is Qui a character, but his wife and Vampire Cowboy producer Abby Marcus appears as well - full disclosure: I know her lovely RL self), the muppet, the rap war, the cowboy shadow play, the spy intrigue, the cannibalism, the slick and pretty design elements, it all comes down to one thing in the end. And that's the simply told and devastating story of Nguyen's family.

I'd be lying if I said this play didn't bring me to my knees in about three different ways. I'm the least prolific of playwrights, something I'm sort of desperately trying to remedy. I have trouble writing without complicated design elements and structures and dance breaks and fairy tales and people rising from the dead in some way or another. I've been questioning some of this recently as sometimes I think I use all the dance breaks and intricate structural stuff as a tool of self protection. Of course, lots of it is stuff that I like, and I am in no way a minimalist by nature, and I began and remain a visual artist first so what stuff looks like matters to me - I mean I think the semiotics of design are important and transcend simple aesthetics. But, I think I may use some of this business because even if this sort of business really matters to me, I think it might be easier for me to deal with stylistic and genre flourishes then with emotional content. I think this is some of what Qui is getting at with this play.

We're all still telling stories round the fire, outside of our caves or tents, even if there are fancy lights and ninjas or clowns playing polar bears or whatnot. And the really basic questions remain the same. Who are we as a species and as Americans and who were we before and how did we get here and who is my family and what does that mean?

No comments: