Sunday, March 27, 2011

THEATER: The Inexplicable Redemption of Agent G

Photo/Jim Baldassare
There is nothing inexplicable about The Inexplicable Redemption of Agent G: for those who have been following the growth of the Vampire Cowboys Theatre Company, this is merely their inevitable next step forward. That is not to imply that long-time collaborators (and co-founders) playwright Qui Nguyen or director Robert Ross Parker need redemption, by the by, but rather recognition that as good as 2007's ultra-campy comic-book send-up Men of Steel was, 2008's sci-fi spectacular Fight Girl Battle World, which pushed new ground in Nguyen's fight choreography, was better. And that where those shows succeeded, 2009's samurai grindhouse epic, Soul Samurai, was an incredibly polished work -- not just of geek art, but theater in general. This is particularly good news for fans of 2010's horror mash-up, Alice in Slasherland, which, although terrific, showed a few signs that the company might be plateauing: where could they go from those puppets, those costumes, all that blood?

Photo/Jim Baldassare
After seeing Agent G, I'm not just a believer again, I'm a thoroughly obsessed fan: Nguyen's latest is not just a tale of Vietnam, filtered through war movies, noir drama, and spy flicks, but the tale of an artist daring to find his voice without compromising his aesthetic. In the end, it's a play in which Katy Perry getting parodied ("Oriental girls, we're inscrutable/Communists with rice hats on top"), ninjas showing off their dance moves, and a rapping, un-PC muppet called Gookie Monster (from the always impressive puppet designer David Valentine), all manage to stand on equal footing with a tragic (and true) story of two young boys -- cousins of Nguyen's -- stranded at sea. Though Nguyen acknowledges that his device -- which involves the playwright himself (played here by the terrifically indignant/frustrated William Jackson Harper) being abducted by his unfinished "Gook Trilogy" protagonist, Hung (the ever-reliable Paco Tolson) -- may owe a debt to David Henry Hwang's Yellow Face, it would be just as easy to favorably compare Agent G to the Pulitzer-nominated The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, which also aggressively plays up stereotypes in a genre setting, knowing that it takes a lot of noise before the quiet truth can be heard.

One might also look to the recently translated Invasion!; or better yet, one might just embrace Agent G as the culmination of a work Nguyen started with his 2006 Trial by Water, a story so important to the playwright that it forced itself through the western shadow-play and the impromptu alien invasion and the motorcycle chase and the "Psycho Killer"-scored moment of cannibalism until finally being heard. Perhaps it might help to mention the South Park-animated portion of the show, which invites yet another pleasing comparison to a work that manages to be both obscene and sincere; over-the-top and on-the-level. (And while we're talking Broadway: Dear producers of Spider-man: Turn Off the Dark, you couldn't find a better company to save your show than the Vampire Cowboys: "That's right, Tiger. I think you just hit the jackpot.")

Photo/Jim Baldassare
Yes, Agent G panders with horrible Vietnamese accents and cheap stereotypes (hilariously rendered by the malleable Jon Hoche): "There is an old Vienamese man playing a one-string Vienamese guitar as we see a slew of other Vienamese do Vietnamese things under some Vietnamese paper lanterns." However, because a constantly criticized Qui appears within the play -- as a willfully ignorant writer who considers himself more Black than Asian -- the show manages to justify its "limitations," and even turns them toward mocking professors, "research" ("You've just been wikipedia'd bitch!"), and the theater's dead-ending developmental process, in which a "good play" -- what will commercially succeed -- is considered more important than a truthful one. ("I failed because I listened.") "The-writer-finding-his-voice" arc may be a literary trope, but never in such an explosively funny way, as a pop-culture-laden action-adventure. (Heck, it even manages to defend its character choices with a Star Wars-referencing defense that would make Kevin Smith proud.)

For the sake of expectations going into future Vampire Cowboys shows, I have tried (and failed) to find something, anything, to criticize in this production. At first, Amy Kim Waschke, who plays Hung's potential redeemer, the brothel's maid, San, looks like a weak link, but no, she's merely written into a submissive role, one that she subverts with each dual-cast opportunity (particularly as a literal Dragon Lady). As for Bonnie Sherman, who plays the familiar Strong Woman archetype that this company adores, she's consistently up to the challenges of the various genres she's thrown into -- particularly the gangsta scenes -- and is also impressive in her role as the voice of reason, a k a Abby, Qui's wife. The aesthetics -- especially given the tight spaces of the Incubator Arts Project -- are equally fault-free: Nick Francone's letter-block set (which spells out V-I-E-T-N-A-M) is surprisingly adaptable and fittingly exclamatory -- particularly when Matthew Tennie's video projections turn them into trees or sultry narrators --, Shane Rettig's sound design lays down the requisitely sick beats for Nguyen's fight sequences, and Jessica Wegener Shay's nerd-chic costumes convey Nguyen's obliviousness to Vietnamese culture while still being inventive. And though it goes without saying, it's worth repeating that director Robert Ross Parker's hand in all of this -- and the fact that he's collaborated with everyone on this team before -- is both invisible and prevalent.

Not all art needs to be a struggle to communicate, and even if it does, Nguyen has done all the work for us, decocting the essence of his dual Vampire Cowboys and cultural identity into one ninety-minute blast of a show. Agent G doesn't go nearly as deep as Hwang and doesn't get as emotionally shocking as Young Jean Lee (whose indelible The Shipment is still a benchmark for debunking stereotypes), but then again, he's not trying to be anything other than himself (and he damn well kicks more ass than the two of them combined). No, The Inexplicable Redemption of Agent G isn't all that inexplicable; but yeah, it's pretty damn incredible.

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