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In the olden days of theater if a character masqueraded it was usually to conceal class or family affiliation, or maybe gender, in order to write in bawdy scenes of men in women's quarters. OK, that's a pretty broad generalization, but think of the costume ball sequence in Romeo and Juliet, or Moliere's Tartuffe and Scapin, or Edmond Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac. The latter, first produced in 1897, was the inspiration for Cowboy v. Samurai, Michael Golamco’s decidedly 21st century take on masquerade and mistaken identity, which is funny and zany at the same time as it's raising some pretty pointed questions about race. The writing stumbles on occasion into the overly cute or the overly outrageous, but the cast is fantastic and by the end they've definitely banished any doubts you might have about the play's strength.
One traditional trope Cowboy v. Samurai doesn’t leave behind is that when people are actually convinced by an assumed identity, when they fall for the game of pretend, the results are usually not what the masquerader intended. In this case, the identity in question is that of the Asian American, and it gets examined in a number of different lights. The producing group, National Asian American Theatre Company, has a mission to promote Asian Americans in theatre by, among other things, presenting “western classics without forced Asian cultural associations” – perhaps not such an intuitive approach to cultivating a minority’s skills, but it works here. The play revolves around the three Asian Americans who live, improbably but not inconceivably, in a teensy Wyoming town called Breakneck, where the other citizens aren't very sensitive about cultural differences.
In the mini diaspora, first there's Chester (C.S. Lee), who was adopted by white residents of the town who neglected to find out “what kind of Asian” he is, forcing him to try on different cultures for size, to see which seems most natural. Then there’s Travis (Joel de la Fuente), a Korean-American English teacher who moved in a few years ago from L.A. and who reluctantly belongs to Chester’s solidarity group, mostly attending meetings just to do damage control for when Chester starts in on one of his nutty plans. Finally, there’s Veronica (Hanna Moon), a Korean-American New York-raised biology teacher who’s just gotten to Breakneck and is trying to sort out her life and figure out what to d next. Predictably, Chester and Travis instantly fall in love with the gorgeous new arrival; not quite so predictably, the whole town loves her, too, including the hot but not so smart Del (Timothy Davis), a part-time PE teacher who still lives at home and smokes weed as often as he can get away with it. On the face of it, not a cast that Moliere or Rostand or others would really have recognized it, but when Golanco sets things in motion, the connections fast become apparent. Del wants to woo Veronica but he’s practically illiterate; eloquent Travis wants her but when they become friends first he finds out that she only likes white men; the collaboration that ensues is less convoluted than those in the old plays, but definitely hearkens back to them.
Pleasantly twangy country music plays throughout, but the set is spare and the production in general pretty bare-bones, so the acting is what everything hinges on, more than is sometimes the case. The weakest part of the play is Chester’s character, which is the vehicle for a lot of the commentary about Asian American identity. The problem is that he’s such a bundle of stereotypes and his actions are mostly so outrageously silly (he prays to Bruce Lee; at one point he somehow steals the golden spike that was used to join the transnational railroad) that it’s impossible to take him seriously, even when he has serious grievances or good observations that he attempts to voice. Travis, on the other hand (much to Chester’s chagrin) hardly acknowledges his heritage – at least until Veronica comes along with her “preferences” in men. As Travis, Joel de la Fuente consistently shines even above the other actors’ strong performances; he is wonderfully natural in the part, making Travis complex and sympathetic and helping the play become something you can really become immersed in. Despite Chester’s over-the-top antics, Cowboy v. Samurai doesn’t hit you over the head with the Asian American theme – it’s a love story, and a story that anyone who’s ever questioned his/her identity or felt it under assault can relate to, and it comes to life with laugh-out-loud moments on top of poignant moments, making it easy to conclude this by saying that it's well worth seeing.
Details: Cowboy v. Samurai runs through 11/27 at the Rattlestick Theater, 224 Waverly Pl. Shows are Tues.-Sat. 7pm, Sat. & Sun. 3pm. Tickets are at Theatermania .
Photo by Sarah Lambert.