The Inexplicable Redemption of Agent G
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 25, 2011
How does a Vietnamese American playwright who's never been to Vietnam stay true to his roots in his art? (You can actually substitute the home country of any first-generation American artist in that question and it remains valid.)
More broadly, how does a playwright negotiate the conflicting demands of audiences, producers, agents, family members, community members, colleagues, critics—of all the players in the sometimes antagonistic relationship of commerce and art—and stay true to himself, creating only the work he cherishes and cares about?
These tough questions are at the heart of Qui Nguyen's new play The Inexplicable Redemption of Agent G. That he has managed at least partially to figure out the answers is reflected by the fact that while the subject matter of this piece is as serious as those questions suggest, the play itself is in many ways the kind of entertaining, pop-culture-inflected action comedy that has become Nguyen's trademark. In holding a mirror up to his process and his own story, Nguyen has created a kind of truth here—and what's truest about it is that it is true to the form he embraces in his art; quoting from a program note, "to bring pop-culture, comic books, and innovative stage combat to the New York stage....[and] to create superheroes for people of color, women, GLBT..."
The play—an onion made up of layers of meta-ness—tells the story of The Playwright ("Qui Nguyen," only he's played by African American actor William Jackson Harper, creating just one level of Brechtian detachment) as he attempts to complete his "Gook Trilogy," a set of serious dramas based on the story of Nguyen's real-life cousin Hung, who escaped from Vietnam in a boat that got stranded in the middle of the China Sea for more than a month. Using a technique reminiscent of both Pirandello and Chuck Jones (in Duck Amuck), Nguyen has his Playwright character interact directly with the characters in his play; and these characters often step out of the play to chide him for this or that error or lapse in judgment. The Playwright's wife (named Abby, just like the playwright's wife in real life) appears in a couple of scenes as well, urging him toward an ever more honest depiction of the tale he's trying to tell. Eventually David Henry Hwang shows up too. An angry email from a Vietnamese audience member at one of Nguyen's earlier plays is (purportedly) quoted, as are reviews of that same play. In other words, "reality" and "artifice" collide in the same way that ninjas and good guys do combat in this and just about every other Qui Nguyen play. It's loose and probably more self-referential and, in a couple of places, more self-pitying than it probably ought to be. It is engaging on every level, and has an authenticity that makes me very excited to see what comes next in the ever-evolving and growing canon of this remarkable American playwright.
Nguyen's frequent collaborator Robert Ross Parker directs with such a firm, sure hand that he's easy to take for granted; his work, as always, is invaluable and expert. Fight direction is by Nguyen and Adam Scott Mazer, and it's thrilling even as it parodies (gently) earlier Vampire Cowboy shows. (Yes, there are nunchucks. Lots of them.) Nick Francone's set and lighting, Matthew Tennie's video, and Parker's film and animation create the antic world of the play beautifully, while Jessica Wegener Shay's costume design, Shane Rettig's sound and original music, and Jamie Dunn's choreography seamlessly support Nguyen's overall vision. The ensemble of five is superlative. Paco Tolson and Bonnie Sherman are spectacular as, respectively, Hung and three different (and very important) white women; Harper is funny and then moving as the beleaguered Playwright; Amy Kim Waschke breathes life into numerous stereotypes as, among others, a Vietnamese boy and a young Vietnamese woman who works as the housekeeper at a whorehouse. Stealing the show constantly is Jon Hoche, who plays seemingly a zillion different antagonists to Hung and/or The Playwright, including, most memorably, a Pimp straight out of Miss Saigon and furry Gookie Monster.
Though there are a few places in the script where Nguyen pokes fun at his downtown theater home, Agent G exemplifies everything that's great about indie theater and represents it at its pinnacle. Will folks who haven't seen Vampire Cowboy action theatre get everything that's going on in this play? I suspect not; my own experience as a long time VC fan (and—disclaimer—publisher of Vampire Cowboy Trilogy, the play that started it all) certainly informed my experience here. Fans are urged to check this out, of course; and anyone who's at all interested in the questions posed at the beginning of this review should take a look as well. Nguyen and his collaborators have some insights to share with us, along with a lot of fun.