Thomas Burns Scully
A post-apocalyptic vampire western on stage. Yes, you read that right.
It’s an old truism that you should always write about what you know best. It’s also a generally accepted truism of everyone born Generation X through to the Millennials, that we watched too much TV, read too many comic books and saw too many movies growing up. So what we know best, as a culture moving forward, is pop-culture. If you would like to see these two worlds of thought collide in a unique world of theatrical entertainment, you should go and see Vampire Cowboys’ “Six Rounds of Vengeance” at the New Ohio Theatre. It’s like nothing else around.
Vampire Cowboys are a Theatre Company started back in 2000, dedicated to producing “Geek Theatre”. The company’s brand of grindhouse/comic-book/anime inspired output has included such titles as: “Alice in Slasherland”, “Soul Samurai”, “Fight Girl Battle World”, and “Let’s Science Ninja Ranger Team Get!” Their house aesthetic is a mode of theatre arrived at by way of Rodriguez, Romero, Tarantino, and Cowboy Bebop. “Six Round of Vengeance” is their latest foray. Written by co-artistic director Qui Nguyen, it is a post-apocalyptic vampire western , it is a post-apocalyptic vampire western with kung-fu sword fights and monsters. I know, right?
The play follows Malcolm Prince (Sheldon Best), a former cop turned ‘Lost Vegas’ gunslinger. He is out to avenge the death of his lover, Nathaniel (Jon Hoche), at the hands of vampire seductress/ninja Queen Mad (Nicky Schmidlein). To assist him he enlists the help of bounty hunters Jess December (Jamie Dunn) and Lucky (Tom Myers). The three journey together, encountering vampires, trappers and lost scientists, all the while reliving their difficult pasts and fighting for survival in an unforgiving world.
“Vengeance” is a lot of fun. A whole lot. The play skims by fast, coming in at a brisk eighty-eight minutes. Within two minutes of curtain up the audience gets their first fight scene. Within seven minutes there have been enough well-landed jokes that the audience is completely relaxed with the performers and ready for the ride that’s coming. The play flirts with being a grind-house flick brought to the stage, but more often than not simply parodies the genre and relies on silliness and character insecurity to get the laughs. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course. The play is frequently funny, and occasionally hilarious. Sheldon Best turns in fine work as the leading man, grounding the production and providing a fine foundation for the rest of the cast to work from. Jamie Dunn is the Uma Thurman stand-in here, she wields a sword comfortably, talks back well, and has a rather touching relationship with Tom Myer’s ‘Lucky’. Jon Hoche also gives good ground as Nathaniel, the scenes between him and Best give the play a lot of heart. Nicky Schmidlein is probably the hands-down funniest performer of the cast, and certainly gets to show off her versatility, playing four very different speaking roles. When she’s not quipping expertly, she’s cartwheeling expertly or wielding a knife on par with the likes of Lucy Liu. Put together, they make an excellent team, and do Nguyen’s script justice.
The show is also quite something visually, the production’s commitment to aesthetic stretches through every part of “Vengeance”. Costuming by Kristina Makowski evokes Fallout 3’s retro-futurism and Mad Max’s dune-buggy-punk. We’re also working in the grind-house vein here, so expect women in impractically sexy and revealing leathers and string vests. Nick Francone’s set is a series of impressively built wooden set pieces which include a life-size derelict replica of the “Las Vegas” sign. The wooden flats he has built also work to form the backdrop where elaborate projections, devised by Matthew Tennie, play out. These include backgrounds to service the action, as well as a couple of visual showstoppers. These are the show’s pre-show; a vintage grind-house trailer for a blacksploitation film called “Shut That Shit Off!” in which an angry woman murders people talking on their phones at the theatre; and a mid-play stop-motion cartoon about a vengeful tumbleweed’s vendetta against a cactus. They don’t contribute a lot to the story, but they go a hell of a long way to build up the live-action-cinema world of the play. And they’re hella funny. Props as well to Shane Rettig for the stellar sound and music of the play, a mix of classic Western hooks and bombastic battle themes that tie everything on stage together nicely. Director Robert Ross Parker’s work in creating a unified aesthetic is exemplary, and the play is worth seeing just for that.
Much as I enjoyed myself, I would be remiss in my duties if I didn’t mention the play’s stumbling points. The most prominent of these stems from the classic problem associated with paying homage to grind-house, pulp comics and other genres that flirt with the dangerous phrase: “So bad it’s good”. If you are paying homage, are you parodying the genre, or are you embracing it and all its idiosyncrasies whole heartedly to make the most entertaining product you can? If you go too far one way or the other you may stumble past “So bad it’s good” and fall in to “So bad it’s bad”. “Vengeance” sometimes feels a little undecided on whether it’s a parody or not. Some of the jokes suggest that it is, the characters give the audience a “Wink, wink, nudge, nudge,” and then say something ridiculous. However, Nguyen’s script is also committed to giving the characters a sympathetic emotional life. The way some of the humor plays out, it serves, at times, to undermine the emotional landscape created. So, we’re not always sure of the stakes in a scene. We’re not sure if a character’s death matters or not. This problem worms its way in to general dialogue as well. “Vengeance” is largely well written, but there are lines here and there that feel clunky, overwritten, or out of place. It is not clear if this is a feature of Nguyen’s own writing style, a deliberate emulation of bad grind-house dialogue, or an actor mishandling a line. These are the perils of the genre, unfortunately, and they distract from the great amount of fun you’re having.
If I have to nit-pick (I don’t, but I’m going to do it anyway), I would also have to say that I wasn’t completely satisfied with the fight choreography. Nguyen, a man of many talents, is also the show’s fight-master, and obviously writes with an eye to give himself as much work as possible. Watching the play you quickly lose track of the number of sword fights, fisticuff exchanges, martial-art battles, general acrobatics, and stylized boss-fights you’ve witnessed. Many of these exchanges are excellent, some are downright astounding, and generally I have no love lost for the fights in the show. However, there are times when the pace of the action slows, or blows are too obviously stage combat and it takes you out of what is going on. It’s a trapping of replicating a cinematic genre on stage. On screen, fights can much more easily be cheated, cuts can speed action up to lightning pace. On stage, things happen at the speed they happen, and when we’re expecting a cinematic fight scene, real-life can seem slow by comparison. All that said, the final fight of the show is spectacular. I won’t reveal too much for fear of spoilers, but David Valentine’s ingenious puppetry, coupled with marvelously stylized comic-book slow-mo moments, and the downright physical commitment of the cast make it one of the most awesome things happening in downtown theatre right now. Hat most definitely off to Nguyen, Parker and every member of their team for that one.
If you’ve ever watched and enjoyed a Robert Rodriguez movie, read comic-books under the covers at night, or played video games till your eyes were sore, there’s a very good chance you’re going to enjoy “Six Round of Vengeance”. They call it ‘Geek Theatre’ for a reason, and in an era where geeks rule the world, Vampire Cowboys couldn’t be more timely. It’s a pretty safe bet that there isn’t anything quite like this happening anywhere else in New York right now. I would also say that if you want to get a stroppy teenager interested in theatre, this would be the play to take them to. I can say a lot of positive things about Vampire Cowboys. For reasons outlined above I don’t think “Vengeance” is going to be their magnum opus, but it is a damn fine demonstration of their aesthetic, a highly enjoyable play in its own right, and, moreover, it’s an example of the best kind of theatre. Theatre where people are doing something they love and making no apologies for it. Everyone involved is clearly having a blast and it shows. As for the company’s magnum opus… well I’m not highly familiar with their back catalogue, but I will predict that if you give them a few years working the way they are working now, Vampire Cowboys are going to produce something that everyone will talk about. Everyone. So now is a very good time to get started on the whole “I saw them when…” thing.
Tickets are $18. That’s a steal for a show like this. It runs through May 16th.
Follow Thomas Burns Scully