Copyright New York Times Company Nov 11, 2005
From London to Texarkana, Tex., theater companies are still mounting Edmond Rostand's 1897 verse swashbuckler ''Cyrano de Bergerac.'' They can't resist the tale of the dazzling poet and swordsman who loved a beautiful and brilliant lady but feared that his outsize nose -- an object of insult and mockery -- would keep her from loving him. So, in a frenzy of self-sacrifice, he writes love letters to her in the name of his handsome but prosaic rival. And he suffers terribly.
The love triangle and mistaken identities make it a surefire drama. And like the heroine, the audience must choose between virile sexuality and emotional complexity.
Now, the National Asian-American Theater Company has produced a trim modern adaptation. Michael Golamco's 'Cowboy v. Samurai' opened Tuesday night at the Rattlestick Theater.
Over all, the transposed elements make good sense: the barriers of appearance and age become those of race and ethnicity. Cyrano is Travis (Joel de la Fuente), a thoughtful, sensitive English teacher. He is also a Korean in the very white town of Breakneck, Wyo. (population 1,000). His verbally challenged local rival is Del (Timothy Davis), a good-hearted hunk who lives on his father's ranch, teaches gym part time and plays a cowboy in local rodeo shows. The new heroine in town is Veronica (Hana Moon), a biology teacher from New York. She is smart, gorgeous and Korean.
We know the basic story. So the challenge for the playwright -- and the fun for us -- is in the variations. Do they take on their own life?
I'd say yes -- and no. Mr. Golamco sets a lot of interesting tensions going. Travis has quietly managed to endure the town's prejudice; the dumb jokes, the fake Asian accents, the student who, in his words, ''keeps making chinky-eyes at me.'' Veronica is in the throes of cultural shock, and both of them have fled unhappy love affairs.
Of course they bond. But. Travis refuses to court Veronica. Is it only because she tells him that she dates white men? Or do other fears hold him back?
In the meantime, Travis's strategy of quiet endurance is being challenged by Chester (C. S. Lee), the town's other Asian. Chester is a broad comic foil. He has made himself a one-man political movement. He lobbies fiercely for tofu in the local store, and he prays to Bruce Lee. As it turns out, Chester doesn't know who he is -- literally. When he was adopted, no one told his white parents which country he came from. Oh, the heavy hand of symbolism!
I found myself alternately caught up and irritated by Cowboy v. Samurai. Mr. Golamco needs to tune up the play, and the director, Lloyd Suh, needs to tone down the production. At certain crucial moments (as when Del asks Travis to write love letters to Veronica), the machinery gears up too loudly. Though they have charm, the actors are encouraged to signal their moods and motives too broadly at times, to overdo a defiant stride or a flash of baffled anger. Mr. de la Fuente gets around this with a calm, steady performance. Mr. Lee can't. And that's a shame. Chester could be comically doctrinaire without being a cliche-spouting clown. His relationship with Travis would have more texture, and when he finally showed some good sense and character, it would feel organic, not manipulated.
Cowboy v. Samurai' continues through Nov. 27 at the Rattlestick Theater, 224 Waverly Place, at 11th Street, West Village, (212) 352-3101.
The New York Sun
Malign them as you will: Writers of romantic comedies have a very hard job. Even with the ending a given, they must somehow delay the final romantic chord long enough to make a work of art. It sounds like the fluffiest possible form, but in the right hands, the formula can yield "Pride and Prejudice" or "Cyrano de Bergerac."
Michael Golamco takes "Cyrano" as his pattern for Cowboy v. Samurai," a completely adorable addition to the genre.The play chronicles the dilemma of a young Asian paramour in love with a Korean woman who says she's only attracted to white guys.
The National Asian American Theatre Company production nails the "comedy" part of this story, but director Lloyd Suh seems to have failed Romance 101. Out of four actors on stage, the best chemistry is wasted on male friends - the hero and his love fizzle.
Travis (Joel de la Fuente) likes his job in Breakneck,Wyoming. He may be one of only two Asians in town,but he enjoys the small town vibe and tossing a ball around with his cowboy buddy Del (Timothy Davis). The other Asian in Breakneck, the confused militant Chester (C.S. Lee), keeps trying to enlist Travis for nutty schemes (the worst involves a KKK hood and a golden railroad spike) so they can assert their Asian brotherhood. Sadly, Chester can't be more specific - due to an adoption mix-up, he doesn't know his actual ethnicity. Instead, he changes it to suit the occasion.
Travis is the level-headed one here, but he also seems terribly alone. Enter Veronica (Hana Moon), a gorgeous Korean American who immediately lays him low. She has enough quirks for a dozen romantic comedies: a bit of a nerd, she collects lottery tickets but never scratches them, and, right, she only dates Caucasians. Del has the all-American look (and pick-up) she wants, but Travis has the brains. Soon Travis is penning love notes for Del, letting the hick take credit for his effusions - just the sort of ruse that never lasts too long.
While Mr. Golamco's charming, strange love letters sound lovely, the play looks shabby. Designer Sarah Lambert's charming blue-wood surround starts out well, but a rickety classroom set and an awkwardly positioned chair shove much of the action into claustrophobic corners. Romances, unless written by David Mamet, don't usually benefit from bleak surroundings.
Mr. de la Fuente manages the "diffident heartthrob" look with aplomb, but he never shows us Travis's ache. Despite a couple of sudden outbursts, Travis's most emotional moments still sound like lines. And Ms. Moon's enormously chilly performance certainly puts the kibosh on any heat between them. Indeed, in scenes with Ms. Moon, the two of them could be reading cue cards being held up in the wings.
Just as in Jane Austen, though, the secondary characters save the day. Chester's entirely bizarre fight for recognition and ethnic solidarity steals nearly every scene. Mr. Lee turns his two-dimensional bit of comic relief into the emotional center of the play. Mr. Davis, meanwhile, stuck with playing "dumb," has a steeper hill to climb. But by the end, Chester and Del strike up a "beautiful friendship" that eclipses the other couple completely.
Village Voice (New York, NY)
Cowboy v. Samurai
So what's Korean American schoolteacher Travis Lee to do? He can charm and champion new-girl-in-town Veronica Lee, but he can't change himself into a white guy--and that's the only kind she dates. When Caucasian cowboy Del asks for some wooing advice, Travis sends sweet missives to Veronica, with Del's signature at the bottom. Michael Golamco's Wyoming-set revamp of Edmond Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac is the first play in a proposed series by the National Asian American Theatre Company featuring Asian American playwrights reworking the Western canon.
As an inaugural effort, Golamco's script is a decided success. Golamco borrows the concept of Rostand's original, but dispenses with subplots, meta-theatrical devices, and even the much celebrated balcony scene in favor of his own voice and concerns. Neither a cautious update of Cyrano nor an earnest meditation on Asian American identity, the play instead offers a gentle, genial, and frequently rather wise comedy of character and race. If substituting attractive Asian features for an outrageously outsize snout seems a troubling trade-off, Golamco actually uses the premise to nose out questions of appearance and assimilation.
Set in the town of Breakneck, Wyoming, the play unfolds with the advent of Veronica Lee (Hana Moon) from Flushing, Queens. English teacher Travis (the dreamy Joel de la Fuente) keenly awaits her arrival, as does Chester (C.S. Lee), the town's only other Asian American resident. Chester, an adoptee whose new parents neglected to ask which country in Asia he hailed from, takes a pitifully militant approach to his identity and anticipates this "hopefully lovely Korean sister" tongue ahang. But it's Del (Timothy Davis), a taciturn hunk of cowboy, who catches Veronica's eye.
If the setup's achingly conventional (girl meets boy, girl takes up with jerk instead, girl falls for boy in the end), the dialogue and characters aren't. Golamco is kind to his characters, even Chester, and generous with endearing traits (a collection of unscratched lotto tickets, a ninja outfit) and amiable repartee. "You're an English teacher," Del pleads with Travis. "Your job is to put words together." "No," Travis corrects, "my job is to give kids books so they can draw penises in the margins." Certainly Golamco's script deserves better treatment than Travis's textbooks, and fortunately director Lloyd Suh and his fine cast provide it. Yee-haws all around.
Minneapolis Star Tribune
The recycling of Cyrano de Bergerac continues, this time as playwright Michael Golamco imagines Cyrano as an Asian-American awash in the American West. "Cowboy Versus Samurai," in a Mu Performing Arts production, roughhouses with all manner of Asian-American stereotype.
There are but three Asian-Americans in Golamco's fictional Breakneck, Wyo.: Travis, a high school English instructor doubling as our Cyrano-inspired poet-hero; Chester, an adoptee of unspecified national origin, and Veronica, a new arrival lured by the prospect of a teaching position. Veronica (Jeany Park) is quite lovely, and -- we all know what comes next -- she draws the attention of Travis (played by the ever-smirking Kurt Kwan). However, Travis discovers that Veronica has "preferences," having dated only white men. So in the fashion of Cyrano, he volunteers his letter-writing services to his friend Del (John Catron), a blond-haired, blue-eyed "big hunk o' man" who's lusting after the new girl in town.
Golamco's script favors punchy, politically incorrect one-liners. There are jokes about "Twinkies" and some deification of Bruce Lee. The playwright is also dissecting stereotypes: Veronica, for example, lives in fear of the submissive sex kitten typology. Chester, as played by the relentlessly comic Sherwin F. Resurreccion, experiments with the kind of Asian identities a Big Sky country kid must've caught on television -- everything from ninja to Maoism. But all that goofiness gets shot through with interludes of heart-heavy prose that, as delivered by Catron in his twangy lilt, sounds like cowboy poems. In other words, this is a text that's unconcerned with literary pretense. The writing feels nimble, conversational and contemporary -- it's funny yet sweet, in the spirit of Kaufman and Hart's "You Can't Take It With You."
Mu's production, directed by Raul Aranas, has some minor imperfections. For one, Kwan's inveterate smirking seems to undermine the sincerity of his character. Even more frustrating, the seemingly sexy Park keeps sucking her teeth, rolling her eyes and engaging in other fussy behaviors. But those flaws can do little harm to the script. The cast can't go wrong, really, because the playwright got it so right.
St. Paul Pioneer Press
Cowboy Versus Samurai is a delightful ride
Although "Cyrano de Bergerac" inspired this show, it isn't merely a remake of that famous plot. Playwright Michael Golamco's original take on the old tale about a large-nosed poet is now set in present-day Breakneck, Wyo.
The only two Asian-Americans in the tiny town are smitten when a lovely young Korean-American teacher named Veronica Lee arrives. Unfortunately for them, she prefers to date white men.
Believing he has no chance with Veronica, Korean-American English teacher Travis agrees to write love letters to her for his white friend, a not very eloquent gym teacher. John Catron makes Del disarmingly charming but a "dumb" (he uses the adjective as a noun).
Kurt Kwan's earnest Travis plays the straight man to both Del and Chester the other Asian-American man in town. Chester was adopted but never found out which country he came from. He could be Japanese or Chinese or Korean or … anyway, he's confused. Although unsure of his nationality, he's determined to assert his Asian identity, worshipping Bruce Lee and founding an Asian society (consisting of him and Travis) to oppose "the man."
Sherwin F. Resurreccion is hilarious as Chester whether he's trying to persuade Travis to join him in a sign-carrying protest or dressing up as a ninja with a flashlight.
Poor Jeany Park's Veronica seems pale by comparison to the colorful characters of Chester and Del. She's sharp but cool and doesn't project the joie de vivre that would make us believe all the other characters would fall madly in love with her. Of course, it's hard to fill the shoes of the perfect woman. (Who has ever made Helen of Troy believable?)
Still, Cowboy Versus Samurai has a smart script, with lots of laughs and plenty of poignancy. Besides the light romantic comedy, it also delves into questions of identity, prejudice and the complexity of love that will resonate with audiences of all backgrounds.
Director Raul Aranas sagely stages scenes that illustrate the tension of connection and opposition between characters, such as when Travis and Del toss a baseball back and forth across the stage during dialogue. He also makes deft use of the split stage, which features Veronica's house on the left, and Travis' classroom on the right.
Because of its mature language, the theater recommends "Cowboy Versus Samurai" for those 16 years old or older. I'd recommend it to anyone looking for an entertaining night out.