The Inexplicable Redemption of Agent G: The Unrated Version
nytheatre.com review by Michael Mraz
February 11, 2012
Vampire Cowboys Theatre Company is, by its own description, a “geek theatre company specializing in creating comic book styled theatrical shows that are filled with martial arts, badass ladies, physically weaker male characters who tend to need saving, and sudden and abrupt genre shifts.” Co-artistic director Qui Nguyen’s new play, The Inexplicable Redemption of Agent G, part three of his “Gook Story Trilogy,” provides us with all of these things in spades. But the hilarious, sharp, high-octane show, produced in association with Ma-Yi Theater Company at the Beckett Theater on Theater Row, sneakily disguises a lot of heart and some important questions under the witty spectacle about a playwright struggling to write a very personal family chronicle the “right way.”
The Inexplicable Redemption of Agent G is an example of perfect kismet in every aspect of production. Everybody’s contribution to the show makes everyone else look extremely good, from direction to design to writing to performance. The tone is set by the beautiful, meticulous design of the show. Nick Francone melds the set and the lighting into one interactive piece. Mostly made up of huge white, block letters spelling VIETNAM, the set yells out exactly what the show is about (on many levels). His lighting bounces and shifts off the white lettering, giving the show a florescent, psychedelic color scheme that is complimented perfectly by Jessica Wegener Shay’s colorful, vibrant costumes. The letters also double as video screens for some hilarious multimedia interludes. Shane Rettig’s sound design is sharp and pulls you into action, while his original music shifts around paying loving homage to every genre the show hits.
The heart, however, is Nguyen’s script. Agent G is the struggle of Nguyen trying to tell the story of his cousin, Hung Tran, and his journey to America from Vietnam. Nguyen previously wrote Trial by Water and Blood in America (parts 1 and 2 of the Gook Story) on the same subject, but here still struggles to get it exactly right. Nguyen appears as a character throughout the play, stopping and starting the action of the scenes as he tries to tweak it and tell it the “right” way, not leaning on his familiar “crutches” of fights, aliens, zombies, ninjas, and quick-shifting genres. But as the play goes on, all of these things infiltrate his story pulling him further and further away from the one he is trying to tell. Nguyen deftly juggles noir, westerns, and the spy genre with precision and loving skill. My only “complaint” (and I use that term loosely) would be that sometimes I didn’t know why we were shifting to a specific genre to tell a part of the story—but in the end, it doesn’t matter one bit because they’re each executed so well and navigated so smoothly.
Underneath the hilarity of tens of colorful characters (most of which push stereotypes to a colorful limit), ninja attacks and complex fight scenes galore (choreographed with remarkable detail by Nguyen himself), and some riotous, well-written musical numbers (including a fantastic rap by the “Gookie Monster”—a huge and, of course, yellow muppet), Nguyen tackles an interesting question about identity and the types of plays that he, as an Asian American playwright, “should be writing.” Critics, theatre-goers, and Nguyen’s grad school professors have expected him to use his point of view as an Asian American to write “important Asian theatre,” however his plays have been “too funny,” “too stereotypical” or “not Asian enough.” It begs the question as to why someone of a particular race should be ham-handed into writing only about the struggles of their own race, whether they identify with it or not, and why they should be held to some kind of noble responsibility to do so. To this end, Nguyen is played by an African American actor (Temar Underwood) in the play. Why? Because he grew up in a middle class African American neighborhood in Arkansas and that’s how he identifies himself. So, Nguyen is torn between writing this story the way he knows how to write stories or the way people think he should write it. In the end, he tells it the way he knows best, with a simple, heartfelt rap (a beautiful, poignant moment of the show which is all the more effective because it rises out of the chaos of its inane hilarity).
The performances in Agent G are fantastic, energetic, and spot-on across the board. The cast fearlessly dives into the roller-coaster ride that is Nguyen’s script and doesn't miss a beat. Robert Ross Parker’s direction is seamless and keeps the high-energy show moving at a perfect pace, navigating its countless stops and starts and shifts. Jon Hoche dances back and forth through countless characters throughout the show with perfect precision—he brings a hilarious and remarkably varied take to every character he creates. Neimah Djourabchi as Hung Tran makes the audience believe that he’s on the ride of his life, never knowing how he, the central character, is going to be portrayed scene to scene, but he is game for every shift and plays each turn skillfully, equally believable as a noir private eye, as a superspy, or just the guy who wants Qui to tell his story right. Temar Underwood gives a comical but heartfelt turn as the muddled playwright, creating a full character, never once relying on the audience to know the real Qui Nguyen (it is a credit both to Underwood and the writing that a “Qui Nguyen” character never seems gimmicky or pretentious). Brooke Ishibashi is lovable and sympathetic as her central character of San, while also being a deft chameleon as many other characters, and delivers a show-stopping performance of “Oriental Girls” (an outrageously funny reworking of Katy Perry’s "California Gurls," made complete by some perfectly suited choreography by Jamie Dunn). Bonnie Sherman does a brilliant job of drawing parallels between Hung’s fictional fiancée Molly and Nguyen’s real wife, Abby, as well as being the badass lady who has to save Hung when he’s in over his head.
Every part of Agent G works perfectly in tandem. Everyone involved is obviously a talented individual artist but together they create a theatrical experience that is 90 minutes straight of fast, entertaining hilarity and impressive visuals, while still managing to leave me discussing some very important issues about race and identity in theater that it almost subtly raises for hours afterward. In the end, the only thing inexplicable about The Inexplicable Redemption of Agent G is just how inexplicably great it is.