Playwright Qui Nguyen and director Robert Ross Parker, his regular creative partner, have graduated to a more prestigious address. Their latest show, presented by Ma-Yi Theater Company in association with Nguyen and Parker’s Vampire Cowboys group, is at Theatre Row, and I haven’t laughed so hard in a long time.
The Inexplicable Redemption of Agent G has plenty of the comic book and video game culture that has dominated Nguyen’s earlier works like Soul Samurai and Alice in Slasherland – opening, for example, with a clever and smoothly staged version of an old-time video arcade duck-shooting game – but this time, the colorful theatrical language serves a deeper theme.
Nguyen wants to tell the story of his cousin’s traumatic 1988 escape from Vietnam via boat, losing his family and barely surviving en route to safety. But the play is just as much about the writer’s search for an appropriate way to tell the tale. Theater doesn’t get more self-referential than this, in fact. The cousin, Hung, is played with energetic mugging by the obviously non-Vietnamese Neimah Djourabchi, while the African-American actor Temar Underwood with affecting naturalness plays the frustrated playwright himself.
This “Nguyen” pops in and out, interacting mid-scene with his characters, arguing with his girlfriend, and bewailing his unhelpful theatrical education. There’s a memorable scene in which he’s hectored by writing instructors to modify his storytelling in ways that don’t feel right to him (“Make it more Asian!”) and another in which the cast lines up to shout out bad reviews of earlier work. These, like other scenes, are screamingly funny, while at the same time they make a point. (Although for a moment I was tempted to suggest that Nguyen conceived the play in this way so that we’d finally know how to pronounce his name: it’s “kwee gwin,” more or less.)
The outstanding cast also features a nuclear-powered Jon Hoche in multiple roles (including a nutso Sesame Street-type monster who leads one of the vampy, street-smart musical numbers); the versatile Brooke Ishibashi as a Vietnamese woman connected with Hung’s dark past; and the always crisply superb Bonnie Sherman, a Vampire Cowboys regular, as Hung’s girlfriend Molly and in other roles. These actors don’t just play characters, though; they’re also ninjas, gangsters, etc., as well as versions of the characters suddenly shifted into different cinematic eras. It can get a little dizzying. But I was left not only with sore laughter muscles but a deeper appreciation for the dramatic abilities and sensitivities of this playwright and this director.
It wouldn’t be right to skip a mention of the technical elements, including the music and sound by Shane Rettig, the combination of Nick Francone’s cleverly stark set and lighting with Matt Tennie’s video design, David Valentine’s puppets, Jamie Dunn’s sharp choreography, and Jessica Wegener Shay’s fabulous costume design. Agent G is a delightful show with music, dancing, visual pop, and substance.
The Inexplicable Redemption of Agent G plays at the Beckett Theatre at Theatre Row until March 4. For tickets, visit the Ma-Yi Theatre website.