Okay, my global theatre friends, we admit it – we here in Los Angeles have been missing out. Sure, yes, we have a lot of wonderful things going for us. We have the film industry, which has been mostly powered by superheroes recently (if you are looking at big box office numbers, and yes I am including Jedi knights in this equation), the television industry (though we just refer to it as ‘television’, which tends to be a confusing mass of streaming and network procedurals alongside even more superhero shows) and we have good weather (though many might argue that a complete lack of rain is not so good). We also have a lot of theatre – too much for me to keep up with and a lot more than people give us credit for – but we did not know what we were missing until Vampire Cowboys arrived with their jaw-dropping, trope-destroying (and employing), utterly exciting work in the form of Revenge Song, which is at the Geffen Playhouse through March 8, 2020.
You might have to live here to understand how strange and utterly delightful it is to find a production like this at the Geffen. This is Westwood, my friends; the home of UCLA, celebrities and a lot of wealthy white people – so when one of the main characters begins the second act with the comment “And is that not a house full of old-ass rich white people? My dude, this is theatre.” – let me tell you, this is as incendiary as things might get in this part of town. Though enacted by an ensemble of six, the play is full of characters that swear blue streaks, engage in illicit affairs with members of their own and the opposite sex and fight to the bloody death so if you are, as narrator Madame de Senneterre (the wonderfully funny and formidable Amy Kim Waschke) states “easily offended by sex, violence or sacrilege… this is your opportunity to exit.” And she won’t validate your parking. There’s no fourth wall, nothing to protect us, and we are dared within the first few minutes of the show to have the balls to stick with this play. Anyone who does is rewarded in ways this review could never describe well enough. You have to see this one for yourself.
It isn’t just a riveting ensemble piece that uses a 17th-century tale about a female “duelist-slash-singer-slash-degenerate youth” named Julie D’Aubigny (Margaret Odette, a stunning and strong actor who keeps us riveted from the first moment we see her) to underscore timely #MeToo, LGBTQ rights and TIME’S UP issues among many other things (yay geek culture!). This is a boldly cinematic experience that uses the language of film to bring this story to vivid life in unique ways. When’s the last time you said that about a theatrical experience in LA? The costumes might hint at elements from the story’s setting and, as we are instructed by Madame de Senneterre and the company (via rap) to “Suspend your disbelief – ignore our stench For no matter what you see – We. Are. FRENCH!”, the set looks like something that’s been lifted right out of the LA River or the NY Subway in the 80s and the songs that are peppered throughout range from heartfelt ballads sung by a father to his daughter (Noshir Dalal as Julie’s father Gaston in a moving moment) and a breakup scream-rock epic sung by Julie after she gets her heart stomped.
There are homages to Elton John/glam rock (sorry Elton, that’s what I saw). Randomly, somehow, there are puppets (so well done). There are story beats that will crush your heart if you are open to what you are seeing and ones that will inspire you to smash guitars into stacks of speakers. There’s just so much talent on the stage, by the start of the second act you are tempted to think they couldn’t possibly have more to give – and then they hit you with the fight sequences and a ‘live feed’ sequence documenting Julie’s escape from something I don’t want to give away.
Maggie Macdonald and Tim Brown are the Fight Directors and what they and the company deliver on the stage feels like a sincere but utterly badass homage to every major fight sequence in cinematic history. With Macdonald and Brown, Director Robert Ross Parker and Playwright Qui Nguyen direct our focus with the kind of clarity and humor I wish we had in a quarter of the action films that come out of this town. It’s jaw-dropping and we think we’ve seen it all but then that live feed, complete with miniatures, clever visual tricks and the ton of work that results in the kind of timing Charlie Chaplin and his ilk made look easy in the old days is one of the most phenomenal sequences I’ve seen in as long as I can remember.
If you are easily offended, you will find reasons to balk when Waschke adds a nun’s habit to her shiny leather, bondage-like costume to take on the role of a Mother Superior but if you are paying attention you will notice that none of the women end up naked on stage. The only bare skin we see is manifested when Waschke orders Dalal to take off his shirt and turn for the audience… and as beautiful a sight as that might be it is also one that becomes increasingly uncomfortable to endure and that feels like the point. It would be easy to assume that everyone has been rendered as a stick figure stereotype but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Dalal and his fellow actors are wonderfully adept at morphing from one character to the next, from hero to villain, from someone Julie can trust to someone she must hate, and eventually kill? (again – see it for yourself) – and they do it with the kind of grounded honesty we don’t often get to see in such a funny show. It is heartfelt. These are people. It’s just fascinating to watch.
Beth Hawkes embodies several roles but as Emily (Julie’s first love) she delivers a painful emotional twist that becomes a knife in Julie’s side with an innocent air that steers clear of oversimplifying her character. Eugene Young is Albert, a man in love with Julie who remains loyal to her no matter what is asked of him (digging up a corpse in a graveyard might be where most of us would draw the line but no, not our Albert) and he is so charming and sweet in spite of his overtly macho attempt to ‘win’ her over, it’s hard not to love him. Tom Myers takes on the lions share of villainy here and he does it so convincingly, he makes your skin crawl at times. It might be partially due to the Costume Design by Jessica Shay that seems dedicated to enveloping Myers in gold fabrics, wigs and a fake oversized belly that help bring his darker moments to life in surprisingly effective ways. Waschke makes a second-act shift from dominatrix narrator into a club owner whose impact on Julie’s life is lovely to watch as it unfolds. It’s the best of five different movie genres merged into one.
With Scenic and Lighting by Nick Francone, the space comes to life and the Projection Designers Kaitlin Pietras & Jason H. Thompson expand on the visuals in graphic, illustrative ways that make this feel more like a graphic novel than a live performance. Shane Rettig is the Composer & Sound Designer. David Valentine is the Puppet Designer. Ryan O’Connell is the Music Director. Stacy Dawson Stearns is the Choreographer. The Production Stage Manager is Ross Jackson. The Assistant Stage Manager is Lizzie Thompson.
Matt Shakman is the Artistic Director of Geffen Playhouse and that suggests we have him to thank for making this production a reality. If Vampire Cowboys Theatre Company does indeed want to make Los Angeles their new home, this theatre-lover, for one, would be more than thrilled to see that wish become a reality.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.