The Inexplicable Redemption of Agent G
This unusual work both provokes thought and induces gales of laughter.
Fans of the Vampire Cowboys' previous work will not be disappointed by the show's opening, a kind of Rambo-esque sequence (featuring Nguyen's deftly daffy fight choreography) set in the jungles of Vietnam (brought to life by some grand projections that fit inside huge letters that both spell out the country's name and are the focal point of Nick Francone's adaptable scenic design).
The play's tone shifts after the battle, when its hero, Hung (imbued with a comically dry bravado by Neimah Djourabchi) brings Qui (made a loveable, wiseass nerd by Temar Underwood) to the stage. Hung, a representation of Nguyen's cousin, a Vietnamese refugee who survived a horrific journey in the China Sea, demands Qui tell his story truthfully, and not embellish or fictionalize it.
What follows is part suspense drama and tug-of-war between the playwright and the characters/performers as they question the show's action, which focuses on Hung's return to his homeland after receiving a letter from San (Brooke Ishibashi), a woman who was the last person to see his parents alive, and the daughter of a man who was also on the boat that carried Hung away from Vietnam.The hall of mirrors that Nguyen has created in Agent G extends beyond the story itself and to questions of ethnicity. The show flaunts its color-blind casting (Underwood is an African-American playing an Asian-American), and when Qui questions the ethnicity of the company, Hung amusingly announces "I'm brown at least."
And even as Agent G grapples with such big issues, it's also just sometimes smartly turned pop culture satire. Shane Rettig's original songs parody not only Katy Perry's "California Girls," but also a Sesame Street classic. Finally, Nguyen borrows from contemporary theater traditions, invoking Yellow Face by David Henry Hwang, who's even brought to the stage to amusing effect by the remarkably versatile Jon Hoche.
It's the appearance of Hwang that spurs the final moments of the piece, in which the actual details of Hung's journey to America are brought to life by Qui in a hip-hop song/poem. This sequence is the most striking revision Nguyen has made to his script, and it seems to indicate that he has wrestled with this historical legacy once and for all -- at least in theatrical form.
It's an ending that will likely divide theatergoers because of its jarring departure in tone from the rest of the play. And yet, even as audiences debate the merits of this conclusion, they will have little trouble in agreeing on the show's overall ambitiousness and its often hysterical success.