Matthew Reddin
“Cowboy Versus Samurai”

Smart acting, rough script

The Boulevard Theatre shows Michael Golamco's flawed, ambitious comedy in its best light.

By - May 25th, 2012 12:41 pm
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In “Cowboy Versus Samurai,” the arrival of Veronica (Veronica Sotelo) overturns Travis’ (David Lee) carefully crafted life in Breakneck. Photo credit Troy Freund.

Cowboy Versus Samurai, the season-ender at Boulevard Theatre, has a tantalizing premise: The basic plot of classic Cyrano de Bergerac blended in with an examination of Asian-American identity politics. Boulevard’s cast does an excellent job with the material — but that material suffers from sloppy plotting and the warring dramatic needs of its divergent inspirations.

The comedy seems promising at first. Playwright Michael Golamco translates the setting from Cyrano’s France to almost-all-white Breakneck, Wyoming. He swaps the physiological stumbling block of Cyrano’s large nose for Travis’ (David Lee) Asian race. The change hauls a lot of baggage, especially once you add the dramatic counterpoint of his romantic interest, fellow Korean-American Veronica (Veronica Sotelo). She only dates white men.

Thinking he has no chance with her, Travis helps his friend Del (Rick Fresca), a white gym teacher at the school where Travis and Veronica teach, to build a relationship with her. Del and Veronica hit it off, but only with the help of letters that Travis writes for him, over the protestations of the town’s only other Asian, Chester (Clarence Aumend).

The first act relies heavily on Edmond Rostand’s 1897 Cyrano de Bergerac; the play’s Asian element seem almost incidental, except for an excellent moment when Travis and Veronica lay their cards on the table: He only dates Asian women, with one notable exception; she only dates white men (“It’s preference, not racism”). Chester offers the only extended discussion of race, but his dial is always set at 11 and he’s too bombastic to take seriously. Whether that’s the way he’s written or the way Aumend plays, that’s how we read him in this production, which Mark Bucher and Jaime Jastrab co-directed.

The second act is infinitely better, though it comes with a wandering subplot about Chester stealing the last transcontinental railroad spike. It goes nowhere and seems to serve only as an excuse to get him and Veronica in the same room. But it also breaks away from the Cyrano plot and gives its characters breathing room to voice their grievances. The discussions of race in this act feel true and honest and make you regret the shakiness of Act 1.

The play advances in a regular stream of discrete moments, many of the wrong in tone: Chester heads to a KKK meeting, Veronica judges boyfriends according to what she finds in their porn stashes, Del’s too-frequent mispronunciation of Korean. Others are simply oddly written or staged: Everything about the railroad spike, Chester’s amazingly non-self-aware Breakwood Asian-American Association meetings. The play lurches between effective expression and confused attempts.

Travis’ friends Chester (Clarence Aumend, L) and Del (Rick Fresca) serve as ethnic foils for the identity-seeking protagonist. Photo credit Troy Freund.

The great consolation is that Jastrab and Bucher have gathered a gifted cast, especially in the case of West Coast visitor Lee and recent UWM grad Sotelo. Their interaction is the heart of the love story, and both are up to the task. Even before Veronica begins to suspect Travis is the letter writer, you can see her being drawn to him despite her bias against Asian men. His frustration over her relationship with Del and his self-loathing for having initiated it are almost tangible.

Fresca and Aumend are good foils as well, but, again, Golamco wrote them into corners: Travis’ white friend and Travis’ Asian friend. They make the most of it; Fresca in particular pushing against the boundaries of his paint-by-numbers Wyoming hick to reveal a more nuanced character.

Cowboy Versus Samurai isn’t a perfect play, but there’s merit to be found in it. Credit the cast for bringing it to the front.

Boulevard Theatre’s production of Cowboy Versus Samurai runs through June 24, with shows at 7:30 p.m. weeknights, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2:30 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $23; call (414) 744-5757 to order.

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