Qui Nguyen’s ‘Revenge Song: A Vampire Cowboys Creation’ crashes elegantly into its world premiere at the Geffen Playhouse’s Gil Cates Theater. The play centered on a queer protagonist in 17th century France comes out of left field, full of experimental theatrics that do not fail the narrative.
The play follows the story of Julie (Margaret Odette) through the narration of Madame de Senneterre (Amy Kim Waschke). Julie explores her sexuality and goes from childhood to adulthood with Albert (Eugene Young) by her side. Nguyen jumps through time, balancing pivotal moments in her life, where men tested her and impacted the way she viewed the world as well as the sweet romantic moments she shared with women, with a few antics in between.
The show takes advantage of different theatrical conventions in a cut-and-paste style. One second characters were rapping into a microphone and the next puppets were trotting on stage. It even begins with a pre-show announcement that verged on satire in the form of a video projected on a flown-in screen. From the beginning, the production sets a tone that was very different from a traditional Geffen Playhouse show.
Scenic and lighting designer Nick Francone created a grungy backdrop that matched the collage-style scenes, altering with the help of lights and projections. The graffiti on the faux metallic walls become unrecognizable behind the red hearts projected over love birds and bright pink lights. Projection designers Kaitlyn Pietras and Jason H. Thompson took on a challenging role since the show called for cinematic endeavors that accompanied live theatre. The dance of the production is to be applauded just as much as the performances.
In a scene where Julie breaks into Louis’ home, one actor films her moving across the stage as it was projected live on a screen stage center. Other actors held large posters creating different backdrops, from ladders to tunnels to large corridors as she jumped from one poster to the next. It became difficult to know what to focus on: the product on screen or the deconstructed view of its creation. Whichever took your focal point still kept the story moving.
A large part of the performance is the connection characters had to each audience member. Through direct address, Madame de Senneterre keeps the story going and connected to the audience to ensure they were following. After intermission, Julie and Albert take to the audience and enter as if they were any other audience member attending a Geffen Playhouse production. They were very aware of what they were doing and Albert even askes if they were in the right place. Julie replies, “Is this not a room full of old ass rich ass white people?” and proceeds to drink out of a Geffen Playhouse tumbler in her seat in the first row. After the following musical number, the show became part of the story, and so does the audience’s existence. And just when you think they’ve synced back into their own story, Beth Hawkins reminded us to register to vote by Tuesday. It felt like a lot, but each line is important and vital. Director Robert Ross Parker put the story first and allowed every virtuosic endeavor to amplify the message.
The heart and soul of the piece are in the feminist and queer themes that focused on issues like sexuality and sexual assault. It seems as if every antic met a downfall where a male character grabbed Julie’s femininity and toyed with it. The play jumps back to Julie at the age of 13 when she got her first job working for Louis (Tom Myers), a man of royal importance. After being ordered to work inside instead of with the horses in the stable, Louis casually ordered her to have sex with him. She protested but he responded, “I’m a man and you’re a girl. It doesn’t matter what you want.” The message is further complicated when she keeps the assault a secret for the sake of her father. “Revenge Song” does not hold back on the truth the same way it does not hold back on its theatrics.
But the themes of the play aren’t all dark. Julie meets Emily, and after an unexpected kiss, comes closer to understanding her sexuality. As the show continues, she gets more comfortable with herself and we see this change, leading up to her relationship with the narrator. Riddled in between both relationships are lines of affirmation, reminding her and the viewer that sexuality is not a choice and one should take pride in their truth. Nguyen provides justice on the topic of sexuality, but not so much on the topic of sexual harassment.
“In real life, justice is not always served,” Madame de Senneterre said.
Nguyen provides nuggets of profound statements in the dialogue that could not be missed. The writing is incredibly comedic and quippy, yet does not forget the message it is trying to send. The combination of female narratives at the hands of the patriarchy collided in the end as all the women in the production stood in front of a man and kicked him down to the ground, allowing Julie to have the final blow. His torso explodes like a popped champagne bottle, celebrating justice.
Although we see Julie find justice, that isn’t always the case. The ending displays more than just a victory, but the power in numbers. Whether it be the number of theatrical conventions or the number of Julie’s horrific interactions with men, “Revenge Song” does not skip a beat in making each one poignant and purposeful.
“Revenge Song” runs now until Feb. 8th at the Geffen Playhouse. For more information, click here.