The dragon is called the Tiamat, and in last fall’s production of Qui Nguyen’s She Kills Monsters, this firebreather closed the show. As the terrified heroine cowered in a spotlight, smoke filled the Flea Theater’s narrow stage. When the lights rose, there was the monster: a colossal five-headed puppet whose handlers were neatly concealed behind the fog. As a practical effect, the Tiamat was convincing enough to make one swear off CGI forever. As theatrical spectacle, it was a highlight of 2011.
Mr. Nguyen, whose name is pronounced “kwee gwen,” could have used any “random red dragon” in Monsters, but chose the Tiamat by polling his fans on Facebook. “I know what my audience likes,” he said last week over lunch at a Ninth Avenue diner. “And that’s part of how I work as an artist. I’m very crowd-sourcey.”
Knowing his fans, and giving them what they want, has secured a place in the Off-Broadway cosmos for Mr. Nguyen and his company, Vampire Cowboys. His plays are fast, funny, packed with combat, dance and genre play, and distinguished from other slick, tongue-in-cheek entertainment by their utter lack of irony. On Tuesday night his newest work, The Inexplicable Redemption of Agent G, opened off Broadway in a coproduction with the Ma-Yi Theatre. Although it features all the Vampire Cowboy hallmarks—“ninjas, kung-fu, girl fights,” as Mr. Nguyen put it—it is the most personal work they have ever produced. Without forgoing the swordplay, the Vampire Cowboys are growing up.
Mr. Nguyen and his most frequent collaborators, director Robert Ross Parker and designer Nick Francone, formed Vampire Cowboys after meeting at Ohio University’s graduate theater program. For the past 10 years, they have produced genre-colliding shows with titles like Living Dead in Denmark—a Shakespearean zombie romp—and Soul Samurai—a blaxploitation thriller set in postapocalyptic Brooklyn. Their emphasis on fun has impressed people like Jim Simpson, artistic director of the Flea.
“They know how to put on a show,” Mr. Simpson said. “They know that if you put the smoke machine out and get a woman fighting a five-headed dragon, that is an ending!”
Swordplay has always been close to Mr. Nguyen’s heart. He spent his first years in New York working as a fight director, and spent three years teaching stage combat at Columbia before he and Ms. Marcus moved to Minneapolis in 2010. Warnings from his graduate school professors that fight scenes were better left to film only made him more interested in putting action on stage.
“I don’t think Shakespeare sat around and complained, ‘Well, I want to put in a sword fight, but that’s really a film technique,’” Mr. Nguyen said. “In film you’re constrained by realism, but I can just have five puppets and some smoke and it becomes a dragon.”
Crystal Skillman, a playwright who is writing a show for the company, called Mr. Nguyen’s work “the closest you can get to animation on stage,” comparing him to Pixar for his ability to leap from heartfelt to action-packed in a single bound. Where other companies may ask a writer to scale back her vision, Ms. Skillman said, the Cowboys’ attitude is that “nothing is impossible.”
“Qui and I are playwrights who have always been focused on story,” she said. “Five years ago it wasn’t like that. There were more language plays, but less story.” A commitment to unsubtle theater has made the Vampire Cowboys stand out in a city packed with small, obsessively esoteric companies. In the words of Mr. Francone, their style is “big ideas painted with a big brush.”
“Our only motto is ‘Whatever it is, it has to be awesome,’” he said.
The company spent its early years being awesome without being noticed. This changed in 2003, when Mr. Nguyen met Abby Marcus, his future wife. Attracted to his work, she said, because of “how entertaining it was, how fun it was, how visceral and live an experience it was,” she took it upon herself to find the Cowboys an audience. Their breakthrough came in 2007, at the second New York Comic Con, where Ms. Marcus arranged to have them show off their stage combat chops to promote the superhero play Men of Steel.
“They had a professional enough pitch that we knew they weren’t four nuts in a basement,” said Lance Fensterman, show manager for the Con, “but it was insane and unique enough that we knew they got our audience.”
After their first appearance at the convention, Ms. Marcus offered discounts to any fanboys who came to a Vampire Cowboys show dressed as a superhero. Besides inviting theater critics to see Mr. Nguyen’s plays, she brought in groups of gaming societies, people who were making comic book podcasts—people who became, Mr. Nguyen said, “ambassadors to these subcultures that would be loyal to us for a very long time.”
“What we’ve always been really specific about is the branding of Vampire Cowboys,” said Ms. Marcus. “The aesthetic is so specific. Not because the plays are formulaic, but because you can go in and expect a certain experience.”
By 2008, when they premiered the sci-fi epic Fight Girl Battle World, the Vampire Cowboys were drawing a fiercely loyal crowd, many of whom otherwise had little interest in theater. “That was the first show where we saw people come in, come back out, and buy a ticket for the next night,” Mr. Nguyen said. “It’s not uncommon to have audience members see our shows five times.” Explaining this loyalty is simple, he said. “Geeks are geeks. When they love something they love it.”
The Inexplicable Redemption of Agent G is a sequel to two of Mr. Nguyen’s early plays, earnest stories he wrote before he learned the art of making geeks cheer. The Ma-Yi Theatre produced the first of these, Trial by Water, in 2006, giving Mr. Nguyen his first Off-Broadway production. A grim retelling of his cousin’s immigration from Vietnam, it contained “no sword fights, no action, nothing like that.”
“There was killing,” he said, “but it wasn’t fun at all.”
When the Ma-Yi asked him to complete his trilogy, Mr. Nguyen found it impossible to write a third play in the same vein. Frustrated by the staid nature of the first two in the trilogy, he decided to put it into the Vampire Cowboys mode, turning it into a spy thriller framed by a playwright agonizing over his inability to tell his cousin’s story.
This is as serious as Mr. Nguyen wants to be. Exploring the gloomy aspects of the “very, very sincere” Trial by Water was, he said, “strangely fun,” but the result was a play that he didn’t want to watch.
“Watching people cry at my plays isn’t necessarily that fun,” he said. “Watching people laugh and cheer, it gives me a high.”
“He writes action-adventure comedies,” said Temar Underwood, who plays Mr. Nguyen in Agent G. “This play is about finding a way to tell his cousin’s story in his voice, instead of being pressured by the outside world to tell it in a classic Asian-American way.”
Mr. Nguyen was more blunt, calling it “a wonderfully racist play about Asian identity” that “makes fun of the fact that the first two plays suck.”
Though the play is more personal than previous Vampire Cowboys work, Mr. Parker called it “the culmination of what we’ve been doing for many years.”
“For longtime fans,” he said, “it has all the elements of any Vampire Cowboys show. Stylistically, it’s unmistakably us.”
Finishing lunch, and still a few days away from tech rehearsal, Mr. Nguyen was confident. “It’s hitting where we want it to hit,” he said. “Good or bad, you’re kind of seeing me with my dick out.” - W. M. Akers, New York Observer
AMERICAN THEATER MAGAZINE - October 2010
If this were the beginning of a Qui Nguyen play, it would probably start with a high school dweeb accidentally opening a gateway to Hell. Or a ninja-style throwdown between two Manhattan street toughs and a Brooklyn gang lord. There would be a gleeful torrent of elaborate fight scenes, machine-gun barrages of snappy banter and enough profanity to make David Mamet blush.
Now, if this sounds more like a movie or a comic book than a play, don't worry: that's the idea. For most of the past decade, Nguyen has been on a self-appointed mission to make theatre safe for dorks. As the resident playwright for New York City's Vampire Cowboys Theatre Company (where he is also co-artistic director), he has written an onslaught of irreverent, action-packed geekfests designed to (a) show the hipster and fanboy crowds that theatre can be cool and fun, and (b) make several genres that have long been associated with other media—science fiction, horror, martial arts—palatable for theatrical consumption.
Since 2007, all of Nguyen's plays for Vampire Cowboys—which include the horror movie-inspired Alice in Slasherland, the blaxpoitation samurai mash-up Soul Samurai and Fight Girl Battle World, his love letter to sci-fi—have sold out their runs, primarily on strong word of mouth. Nguyen's rapidly growing fan base, built from both the indie theatre and Comic-Con crowds, anticipates his plays with the kind of giddy enthusiasm usually reserved for the latest Harry Potter movie. The crowd at one of Nguyen's shows can be a show unto itself—waves of raucous laughter crash through the theatre while loud cheers and gasps of awe and terror converge like Voltron. It's like watching Independence Day and a Dane Cook concert simultaneously.
Critics and peers are also starting to get with the program. Soul Samurai nabbed a GLAAD Media Award nomination, and Fight Girl scored a New York Innovative Theatre Award nomination for outstanding full-length script. In 2006, Vampire Cowboys landed the NYIT Foundation's Caffe Cino Fellowship Award, a cash prize "for consistent production of outstanding work." And this past spring, the company was awarded a prestigious Obie grant.
This season, Nguyen kicks things up another notch with two projects that promise to take him where he hasn't gone before. Beginning Mar. 31, Vampire Cowboys premieres his newest play, The Inexplicable Redemption of Agent G., at New York's Incubator Arts Project. The semi-autobiographical tale—which aims to turn the lesser-known genre of Asian identity plays on its ear—features Nguyen himself as a lead character, struggling to write a meaningful drama about his cousin's true life journey to America, and constantly getting razzed by the other characters for putting himself in his own play.
Then, Nguyen takes his act to the West Coast with Krunk Fu Battle Battle, a new hip-hop musical commissioned by Los Angeles's East West Players that runs May 12-June 26. The project, about a kung fu teen who battles a shogun and his henchmen, marks Nguyen's musical theatre debut and the first time in recent memory he'll be premiering a new work without his longtime Vampire Cowboys collaborators by his side.
Despite the exuberant absurdity of making a snarky teddy bear a major character in Alice in Slasherland (achieved with animatronics) and of Soul Samurai's bloodthirsty title character greeting the audience with a casual "Moshi moshi, muthafuckahs," Nguyen is no gag writer. "I don't set out to write comedies," he says, explaining that his initial goal is "usually to make the audience cheer." Taking his cue from action/adventure genres, Nguyen says he's "more interested in writing something that's high-adrenaline—it's about that kind of thrill that you get." That thrill fuels his never-ending desire to attempt the seemingly impossible on stage, like disemboweling a demon (which he did in Alice in Slasherland) or staging an outer-space dogfight (a highlight from Fight Girl, done with hand-held mock-ups and puppeteers).
Still, he realizes "there's going to be something inherently funny" about seeing such moments performed live on stage, and confesses that he relishes making "people's heads explode with laughter." Nguyen is quick to point out that his plays are never meant to be campy: "When we're doing a samurai play, we're legitimately trying to do a samurai play"—but he admits his plays are intended to simultaneously celebrate and send up whatever genre he's tackling. Case in point: The scene in which a sword-wielding Ophelia (yes, Shakespeare's Ophelia) singlehandedly takes on an army of ninja zombies in Living Dead in Denmark, Nguyen's tongue-in-cheek zombie sequel to Hamlet, hilariously (and intentionally) evokes both Kill Bill and Charlie's Angels while blazing its own iconic trail.
Given his proclivity for rapid-fire, profanity-laced repartee, strong-but-sexy female protagonists and a preference for creating new genre archetypes, it's not surprising that Nguyen's idols are screenwriters Joss Whedon and Kevin Smith and comic book writer Brian K. Vaughan. Though he's a playwright of color, he insists he has no political or racial axe to grind. But, as his colleagues insist, that doesn't mean there's not more going on underneath the surface of his blood-splattering antics.
Vampire Cowboys co-artistic director Robert Ross Parker, who directs all of Nguyen's plays for the company, thinks his creative partner's humor "comes from approaching style and genre very seriously." Actor Paco Tolson, a Vampire Cowboys regular, marvels at the "giddy disregard for limitation in Qui's work. There are no taboos. Race, sex and politics are all fair game to him." Carlo Alban, who played lead roles in both Denmark and Slasherland, calls Nguyen "a quiet revolutionary, a subversive, a ninja." And Maureen Sebastian, who portrayed the title role in Soul Samurai, praises Nguyen for stretching "the boundaries of what a script can do," and, in turn, "what American theatre can do."
Nguyen's distinctive style came about, in part, in reaction to his grad school instructors' insistence that visual, action-based stories were more appropriate for film than theatre. "It was about talking, talking, talking, but never showing," he recalls. "Do you think Shakespeare thought about that? In Romeo and Juliet, they shouldn't have a sword fight because we're a talking medium?" Nguyen rebelled against such conventional notions and began churning out a body of work that comes off like a collection of rowdy mash notes to pop culture.
The love affair began in his hometown El Dorado, Ark., where his Vietnamese parents reared him on kung fu movies because they wanted him to see stories where the heroes were Asian. Furthermore, they boldly taught him that most of the world was Asian and looked like him, so he wouldn't feel out of place in ethnically barren Arkansas. It was a calculated exaggeration that gave Nguyen, in his words, "great self-esteem" and a trove of inspiration.
Nguyen's heritage provides the source material for The Inexplicable Redemption of Agent G., in which the author insists he will not be playing himself. ("I'm no actor" he says; the role of "Qui" will be played by a professional.) In the script, however, as Nguyen the character gets bogged down by uncertainty, Nguyen the writer increasingly explodes both style and form, playing with a revolving door of genres. "When people meet me and find out I write plays, they assume a lot of times that I write serious Asian drama," he says, eager to crack viewer expectations wide open with a well-placed theatrical roundhouse kick.
With Krunk Fu Battle Battle (which features a score by Beau Sia and Marc Macalintal), Nguyen takes the plunge into musical book-writing, a job for which East West's artistic director Tim Dang thinks the playwright is well suited. "Qui's writing is 'now,' it's 'today,'" Dang says. "It ventures out into hip-hop, poetry, anime, but it can still be accessible to a diverse audience." Those qualities led Dang to commission Nguyen, whose career he'd been following for several years, to pen the family-friendly tuner. For Nguyen, it's a happy return to the aesthetic territory of Soul Samurai. "My favorite things in the world are early '80s hip-hop, comic books and samurai stories," he says, excited about the opportunity to once again write something that incorporates all three.
No matter what genre he's working in, Nguyen's goal remains the same: "to show that theatre is just as cool as waiting in line to see the latest movie blockbuster." -Michael Criscuolo, American Theatre Magazine