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Entertainment & Arts

Review: Playwright Qui Nguyen makes a superhero out of an LGBTQ 17th century rule-breaker

Beth Hawkes, left, and Margaret Odette in the world premiere of “Revenge Song” at the Geffen Playhouse.
Beth Hawkes, left, and Margaret Odette in the world premiere of “Revenge Song” at the Geffen Playhouse.
(Jeff Lorch)

The Geffen Playhouse is undergoing a major housecleaning at the moment. Playwright Qui Nguyen and his company Vampire Cowboys have blown into the theater on daffy winds that are whooshing the old cobwebs onto the trees of Westwood Village.

“Revenge Song: A Vampire Cowboys Creation,” which is having its world premiere at the Geffen’s Gil Cates Theater, is like nothing you’ve seen before at the sedate Westside venue. Part comic book, part musical, part run-amok id, this rowdy, crowd-pleasing show operates like a pop cultural Cuisinart. If the theatrical recipe is still in the test-kitchen phase, it’s fun to watch an innovative chef experiment so wildly.

A pioneer of what he calls “geek theater,” Nguyen has a soft spot for raunchy rap, fantasy fight scenes and “South Park”-style irreverence. In his autobiographical plays, “Vietgone” and “Poor Yella Rednecks,” he managed to sensitively blend his comic-con sensibility with the heartfelt story of his Vietnamese refugee parents, who met in the U.S. and tried to put their memories of war behind them while building a new life in a strange land.

In “Revenge Song,” he reverts to his roots with the Vampire Cowboys, the company he co-founded with Robert Ross Parker, who directs their latest collaboration with commendable verve. The chief objective of this freely anachronistic fantasy about the historic Julie d’Aubigny — a swashbuckling, gender-defying, norm-flouting singer in late 17th century France — is to energize and entertain.

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A puckish spirit prevails. When the characters aren’t madly karaokeing or crossing swords, they’re chatting with puppets or cutting off the privates of dead bodies. Sex, violence and sacrilege are promised by Madame de Senneterre (a vibrantly dangerous Amy Kim Waschke), who serves as a kind of dominatrix of ceremonies. And boy, is she not kidding.

Highbrow this isn’t. If you have an allergy to raucous silliness, “Revenge Song” is probably not for you. The ideal demographic is roughly a third of the age of the typical Geffen audience or the usual crowd loaded up on wine coolers. (This is definitely not a dry Chardonnay kind of show.)

But for all the unapologetic goofiness, the antics aren’t devoid of higher purpose. Nguyen has a penchant for turning outsiders into superheroes. Under his watch, complicated multicultural characters on the margins get their Marvel moment. For Julie (Margaret Odette), a woman discovering her attraction to other women while fending off the assaults of men determined to take advantage of her vulnerable economic situation, strength is born out of necessity.

Perhaps she didn’t need to stab Albert (a game Eugene Young) for hitting on her. His pathetic hip-hop flow may be lurid, but this “mad single” player is too bumbling to be threatening. Fortunately, much of the violence in “Revenge Song” has a cartoon reality. After licking his wounds, Albert becomes Julie’s loyal sidekick.

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An encounter with the emotionally unstable, uncontrollably flirtatious Emily (Beth Hawkes) opens up an unexpected romantic possibility for Julie. She falls so hard that when Emily is sent by her father to a nunnery to curb her Sapphic tendencies, Julie devises a wacky plan to spring her beloved from the fearsome clutches of this unusually sadistic religious order.

Nguyen skips around freely, filling in the hardscrabble backstory of Julie’s upbringing and fast-forwarding the action to bring us more of her hairbreadth escapes from brutal men (and a few terrifying women) who want to put her in her place. Nothing, however, can squash her independent spirit.

Albert, recognizing the natural bent of Julie’s desire, still clings to her: “I get it. You like women. It’s 1697, I’m cool with that … but can you not love me too?”

But love never goes according to plan in “Revenge Song,” which is why the characters keep erupting into song. The fulsome rock anthems and dopey raps, original numbers featuring Shane Rettig’s music and Nguyen’s lyrics, are parodies though not complete jokes. Real feeling has a way of slipping into the singing, revealing a sentimental heart under Nguyen’s arch humor.

“Revenge Song” places the action in quotation marks, but that doesn’t mean that all is spoof. The balance is tricky to get right, and the ensemble (which is rounded out by Noshir Dalal and Tom Myers) hasn’t fully jelled yet.

Waschke’s Madame de Senneterre, who becomes more implicated in the action she cheekily annotates, is the most striking figure in the production. Odette could use some of Waschke’s theatrical ferocity. Her Julie has sultry charm, but the role requires more daredevil command.

The production also could use some reining in. Curtailing one or two of the fight scenes might leave more space to sort out the storytelling. Obviously, an orderly plot isn’t paramount in a play that keeps breaking the fourth wall to tease audience members. But the grab bag could be better packaged.

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The most hilarious part of the show might just be the cinematic handling of the pre-show announcement, in which a murderous mime threatens bodily dismemberment to theatergoers who talk, text or munch potato chips. But I found myself also guffawing at raunchy lyrics and the “Spamalot”-inflected mockery of the French. (Nguyen has a way of drawing out everyone’s inner adolescent.)

The projection design (the work of Kaitlyn Pietras and Jason H. Thompson) gives the dark palette of scenic and lighting designer Nick Francone a sprightly kick. The props are a veritable toy chest of bawdiness and blood. The visual tomfoolery is in winking cahoots with the playwriting caper.

Julie’s revenge against the men who have tried to destroy her is a dish that isn’t yet fully cooked. But it’s a thrill even at this relatively early phase to watch Nguyen spin so many plates in the air.





'Revenge Song: A Vampire Cowboys Creation'
Where: Geffen Playhouse, Gil Cates Theater, 10886 Le Conte Ave., L.A.

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)


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