Wearing a patent leather romper, black fishnet stockings and what looks like a diamond-encrusted choker, Amy Kim Waschke saunters authoritatively across the stage. She tells the audience that this show is about Julie d’Aubigny — a name she doubts anyone here has heard.
“Worry not, mes cheries — I am sure this is due to you all being stupid ignorant Americans,” she says, with her thick French accent.
She then points her riding crop toward the back of the room. “If you are easily offended by sex, violence or sacrilege, this is your opportunity to exit,” she warns. “And we will not validate your parking!”
Such is the sense of humor in “Revenge Song,” opening Thursday at the Geffen Playhouse and running through March 8. The production marks the Los Angeles debut of Vampire Cowboys, the niche New York-based theater company that mounts shows with cinematic and comic book elements.
The “geek theater” group — co-founded by playwright Qui Nguyen and director Robert Ross Parker — has attracted perennial collaborators and a devout fan base for 20 years.
“I’m always writing shows for the 16-year-old in me who liked movies and comics and thought theater was stuffy and uncool,” Nguyen said. “I want to make him go, ‘No, these are your stories too. Being with other people, telling stories together — it’s important.’”
“Revenge Song” touts elements that may feel foreign to L.A. theatergoers. A zany short reminding viewers to silence their cellphones. Nonverbal fight sequences with slow-motion moments, sound effects and Tarantino levels of projectile blood. An action-packed live-feed sequence that would impress Ivo van Hove and Tom Cruise. Numerous timeline jumps, random puppetry and 90-second rap, rock and pop songs.
These make up the DNA of Vampire Cowboys shows, which simultaneously celebrate and send up the pastiche of mediums. “We like to change up the way we deliver a story throughout the course of a night,” said director Parker with a laugh. “It’s like organized, orchestrated chaos.”
The company aims to put women, people of color and LGBTQ people at the center of its stories, which are usually about superheroes, zombies and other science-fiction fare. “Revenge Song” is its first to center on a real-life figure: d’Aubigny, a queer swordswoman, singer and sexual assault survivor of 17th century France.
At first, Nguyen didn’t know anything about d’Aubigny, but he heard her name often when crowdsourcing fan suggestions for potential show subjects. “Once I started reading what I could find about her, I was shocked — she was such a rebel, which is great for our aesthetic,” said the “Vietgone” playwright. “But what really fascinated me is that she was claiming her identity in a time when there wasn’t a lot of definition for that yet.”
The two-hour adventure charts, in no particular order, how a young Julie posed as a boy to get a job tending horses, was forced into sexual servitude as a teenager, rescued her girlfriend through grave robbing and became a renowned opera star. The show takes some poetic license with its ending, given the conditions of her death (at around age 30) remain a mystery.
“In all Vampire Cowboy shows, I’m going to make a superhero because at the end of the day, you should feel empowered,” Nguyen said. “That she died at some point isn’t a revelation — everyone dies, and this is from 400 years ago, so of course she’s dead.
“What’s important is that she lived, and she lived this life that had a lot of confusion and horror, but she still survived and loved. That’s heroic.”
The inventive historical production calls on colorblind casting and costuming with contemporary references. All six actors’ lines sprinkle curse words among pop culture vernacular, sometimes delivered in a blend of French, Valley girl or surfer dude accents. Julie wears denim, sneakers and spandex; a medieval montage of her first date — with movie popcorn, arcade games and photo booths, of course — gets riotous laughter.
“It’s been so fun playing a historic figure I’ve never heard of, and then exploding it into the VC comic-book format,” said Margaret Odette, who plays Julie. “I hope people walk away excited about learning more about different kinds of women from history — not just the princesses, not just the queens.”
The show began previews last week, without the company’s strong following in tow.
“In New York, we’re basically a ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show.’ They know the fights and the fake sword throws are coming, and they cheer when they see it,” Nguyen says. “Over the past 20 years, we’ve depended on our young audiences to educate the older audiences that you can cheer not just by clapping, but also screaming and shouting.
“I think we’re all concerned that, in L.A, we don’t have our loyal fans sitting next to the season ticket-holders, having the gumption to holler at the stage when there’s a hot dance move, to give them props when they do a badass fight sequence,” he continued. “Everyone here is new to our show, they don’t know our tricks.”
Nguyen and Parker still plan to bring “Revenge Song” back home to New York. But because Nguyen (who also writes for Marvel and Netflix) and many members of the company have relocated to the West Coast, they hope Vampire Cowboys’ Los Angeles debut marks the beginning of a bicoastal presence, and the start of a new fan base beyond L.A.'s traditional theatergoers.
“Our goal has always been accessibility,” said Parker. “We’re not trying to make shows for a small sliver of people, but a very wide audience from all different backgrounds, especially people who don’t go to the theater a lot. With every show, we try to say, ‘If you like movies and TV and comic books, you know what? Theater can be cool, it’s fun. And it’s for you, too.’”
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays.-Fridays., 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays., 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays, through March 8 (check for exceptions)
Tickets: $30-$120 (subject to change)
Info: (310) 208-5454, geffenplayhouse.org
Running time: 2 hours (one intermission)