Theater Review: REVENGE SONG (Geffen Playhouse)

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by Tony Frankel on February 21, 2020

in Theater-Los Angeles


The thing that looks like a high school vanity project at the Geffen Playhouse is actually a world premiere with a lot of bucks behind it. While I certainly appreciate that Qui Nguyen of the self-described “geek” theater company Vampire Cowboys in NY (co-founded by director Robert Ross Parker) desires to take nerds away from their screens and into the theater, he — and the Geffen — inadvertently alienated a lot of the audience that keeps theater alive (at least 50% of the folks around us went home after intermission — presumably to go back to their own screens). This is the author of the oft-produced She Kills Monsters — a rip-roaring satirical play with heart all about Dungeons and Dragons, introduced as “so advanced in its advanciness it would take a whole second edition to contain all its geeky geekery.”  That line, and many from this latest-hot-thing playwright, make me laugh out loud. His 2015 play Vietgone — another deservedly mass-produced play (which Los Angeles Theatre Works just recorded last week) —  is about his parents (“who this play is absolutely not about” we are told), who met and fell in love in 1975 in an Arkansas relocation camp for Vietnamese refugees. Bouncing around in time and space, we trek from Saigon to the Deep South to the expansive highways of the American Southwest with fanciful fun and flavor. In both of these works, he skirts depth by adding backstory that is something we can connect with.

In Revenge Song, there is still the trademark lively (but fake-looking) fight choreography, madcap set-ups, costumed cartoon villains, an underdog hero, boisterously modern meta-theatrics, and a gallimaufry of song styles. It wants so badly to be a mash-up of Quentin Tarantino and Culture Clash (and the latter ain’t a compliment), but it ends up being one hot mess. (I must throw in here that I didn’t hate it with the vehemence of my own theater-geek crowd, simply because I love so many of Nguyen’s lines, and some of Parker’s inventiveness: a late-in-the-game escape and chase utilized hand-held cameras with hilarious projections as a result.) The script is chockablock with anachronisms, too (Julie gets dumped by text message at one point).

Oh, there’s also puppets. And clichés.

The play is based on the exploits of the true-life Julie d’Aubigny — sword-slinger, opera singer, and larger-than-life bisexual celebrity of 17th-century France. Her life was a whirlwind of duels, seduction, grave robbing, and convent-burning so intense that she had to be pardoned by the king of France twice. Written in comic-book-style, the situations actually compel, but nothing resonates because Nguyen again avoids going to the darker side of humanity that great playwrights explore even in comedies. As with Penny Arcade machines, what we have is stereopticon slides of a journey with no connected tissue. In this case, that sinew is supposed to be the diverse songs, which include bubble-gum pop, folk ballad, hard rock, and rap, the latter’s lyrics of which (as in Vietgone) were impenetrable due to an over-amped bass. Sometimes they work, but mostly they interrupt the broken-up narrative. Shane Rettig supplies the original music, all of it derivative.

A surprisingly uneven six-person cast doesn’t help this juvenile effort either (although the modelesque Noshir Dalal stopped the show cold just by taking off his shirt). Some pulled off wildly funny characterizations in the vein of sketch comedy, while others were weirdly amateurish, even sloppy.

It’s almost as if the producers don’t trust the intelligence of the so-called nerds. One surmises that this play was chosen just so the Geffen — as with many many playhouses around the country — could show off its commitment to youth and diversity. Now you understand the subtitle A Vampire Cowboys Creation. I assure you that no play in the 1930s was subtitled A Theatre Guild Creation. C’mon, we all know the play’s the thing … or perhaps not anymore.

photos by Jeff Lorch

Revenge Song: A Vampire Cowboys Creation
Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater
Geffen Playhouse, 10866 Le Conte Avenue in Westwood
Tues-Fri at 8; Sat at 3 & 8; Sun at 2 & 7
ends on March 8, 2020
for tickets, call 310.208.5454 or visit Geffen Playhouse

{ 1 comment }

Miguel Cervantes February 22, 2020 at 3:05 pm

Matt Shakman had such a gift for picking great scripts when he ran Black Dahlia, his own tiny theatre company. American theatres should start picking scripts on their merits instead of appealing to various demographics. A well-written play can resonate across cultures and races. We don’t need Asian plays, Geek plays, Black plays, Jewish plays. We need plays that speak to humankind.

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