There’s highbrow, there’s lowbrow, and then there’s however you might classify Vampire Cowboys, the anarchic New York City theater company whose diverse productions take rock anthems, geek-tastic pulp/TV/film references and social commentary, strap it all into a pop-culture Tilt-a-Whirl, and bottle whatever pukes out. It’s radical, “good taste”-flouting counter-programming for the vast swaths of the population left unserved by high-dollar, stiff-collar theater options.
Vampire Cowboys’ raucous new show, “Revenge Song,” is unlike anything else that’s graced the Geffen Playhouse’s main stage in ages: Wild and queer and completely anachronistic, this rowdy account of French opera singer Julie d’Aubigny’s life focuses on the bisexual heroine’s most outrageous exploits, which include cross-dressing, sword fighting and infiltrating a convent in order to ravish the ex-lover who’d been sentenced there. (Julie later burned down the place.) In short, “Revenge Song” serves as an ideal West Coast sampler of Vampire Cowboys’ unique brand of anarchy, making good on its promise to deliver generous helpings of sex, violence and sacrilege.
To call the show “disruptive” would be a mighty understatement. In fact, it must come as quite the shock to some of the Geffen’s more conservative season pass holders — whom Julie (played by Margaret Odette) describes as a room full of “old-ass, rich-ass white people” when she and lovestruck companion Albert (Eugene Young) come back from intermission. Roaming the aisles and engaging the audience directly (one of the troupe’s signature tactics), Albert dismisses theater as “pop culture for the nerdy class,” which is a perfect description of Vampire Cowboys’ modus operandi: For two decades, the Gotham-based group has been challenging the legitimacy of the stuffy legit theater world, peddling genre-crossing fanboy pastiches to underrepresented audiences. As co-founder Qui Nguyen describes on Variety’s Stagecraft podcast, Vampire Cowboys’ goal was “to create superheroes for people who don’t get to see themselves depicted that way regularly onscreen or onstage.”
In this respect, Julie d’Aubigny makes for an inspired choice: an irrepressible chantoozie turned notorious celebrity who defied late-17th-century French society’s rigid class and gender codes. Though the real-life d’Aubigny hooked up with men and women (actual details of her life are a matter of some dispute, given to considerable embellishment over the centuries), writer Nguyen presents Julie as a contemporary lesbian, wrestling with the truth of her identity. Virtually all the dialogue in “Revenge Song” feels stolen and recycled from comic book talk balloons — a string of cliché phrases rendered all but meaningless by repetition, to which Nguyen (and the cast) give fresh meaning in this unexpected context.
It’s all delivered with a wink and a sneer, rather than with anything approaching sincerity. Vampire Cowboys want to entertain, and director Robert Ross Parker proves clever enough in demolishing the fourth wall at every opportunity — as in the convent sequence, which erupts into a battle royale complete with simulated slo-mo and wireless Hong Kong choreography, as Julie, her lover Emily (Beth Hawkes) and Albert take on a protective trio of very angry nuns. (The holy sisters’ weapon of choice? Nunchucks. Meanwhile, Julie wields a samurai sword.)
The novelty of their approach — they’ve been doing it for 20 years, but for many, this will be a virgin experience — is amusing, but it’s also tiresome to watch theater that seems to be performed in air quotes for little more than a laugh. Granted, there is a political undercurrent to Vampire Cowboys’ show, but it doesn’t go very deep. Odette stands for queer self-empowerment, and yet, she doesn’t attempt to convey any sense of emotional connection in Julie’s various couplings.
The casting is refreshingly diverse, featuring four actors of color amid an ensemble of six. But it’s disappointing to see such progress used in service of stale French stereotypes. Painting the scene (1695 Paris, made to look like “The Warriors”-era New York with graffiti sprayed across gray bodegas), the first song mocks, “We’re rude A. F., we smoke cigarettes / We stink of B.O., cuz we are French / We speak really sexy, but we’re bad in bed / We only please ourselves, cuz we are French.”
I guess the French are fair targets, while men are all rapists or sex-obsessed stalkers in need of redemption in a show that peddles reductive messages about consent, gender equality and (through its colorblind casting) the power of representation. Those are all noble ideals, but the treatment feels as superficial as an after school special. It’s a lot more fun, at least, and audiences aren’t likely to get bored as Parker keeps the set pieces unconventional, including a black-and-white prison break projected onto a screen above the stage, while Odette simulates the steps for a live camera before their eyes.
Amid two hours of sensory overload, “Revenge Song” throws potty-mouthed puppets, complex video projections and elaborate fight scenes at the audience, stringing it all together with more than half a dozen musical numbers — genuinely good songs that lend an air of respect to all that irreverence. In the end, “brows” don’t apply: Vampire Cowboys have razored theirs off, leaving audiences to decide what to make of this crazy remix of high and low influences.