Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre presents the searing, political comedy Cowboy Versus Samurai
Soulpepper has had a lot of success staging updated adaptations of classic plays so who better to mount a production of Cowboy Versus Samurai, American playwright Michael Golamco’s hilarious, clever, edgy and political adaptation of Edmond Rostand’s classic play Cyrano de Bergerac? Cyrano, the man with the poet’s flair and famously large nose, believed that his ugliness denied him the dream of being loved. But for Travis, the protagonist in Cowboy Versus Samurai it’s not a giant nose that renders him unloveable it’s his race.
Travis Park (Jonathan Tan) is a high school English teacher and one of only two Asians in the tiny town of Breakneck, Wyoming where he lives and works. When Veronica Lee (Rosie Simon), a smart, attractive Asian-American woman moves to town, Travis immediately falls for her. The problem is, she only dates white guys and is interested in Travis’ dim-witted “cowboy” phys-ed teacher friend, Del (TJ Riley).
The idea of having a racial “preference” in dating is inherently racist. It’s most often not the overt, intentional, cross-burning type of racism but rather the subconscious effect of ingrained systemic racism. Historically, racist hysteria over “yellow peril” meant that Asian-American men have been consistently emasculated in Western culture. The racist perception persist to this day as we are still stereotyped as asexual nerds.
Add that to the fact that the Western standard of beauty is a colonial, white standard that’s constantly reinforced in popular culture and the Cyrano analogy isn’t far off for an Asian-American man. Essentially, this show is about racial politics, systemic racism and, in a roundabout way, white privilege.
Golamco approaches the weighty subjects in a light, accessible way. Cowboy Versus Samurai starts off as a madcap comedy with most of the comedic heavy-lifting done by the character of Chester (Miquelon Rodriguez); a would-be Asian-American Che Guevara who sometimes dresses up as a ninja and prays to Bruce Lee. Chester banters and spars with Travis, tackling racial issues in an irreverent way with ironic and subversive humour that had me belly-laughing throughout.
Then, there’s a tonal shift between the two acts and the play builds to an explosive second half when things come to a head between the characters. The hard-hitting, confrontations between the various characters allow a deep dive into the core issues in a way that’s pithy, thought-provoking and even unsettling at times. I found that as the characters argued my allegiances would shift back and forth and it forced me to question my own biases.
Playwright and actor Ins Choi is making his directorial debut at the helm of Cowboy Versus Samurai and, in many ways, he is a perfect choice for director. Like Choi’s beloved show Kim’s Convenience, this show deftly handles weighty issues with disarming humour. It feels like a sitcom and even comes with an opening sequence and title credits. Choi gets the pacing and tone of the script just right throughout, deftly navigating his cast between the irreverent humour and the harder-hitting moments of drama so neither are short changed.
What I also love about this show is that these characters aren’t just constructs to explore ideas, Choi and his actors really tease out the humanity in these characters to the point where I not only related to them but really felt for them. The last scene between Travis and Veronica is truly heartbreaking.
Cowboy Versus Samurai is a searing social commentary that’s timely, relevant and thought-provoking. It may challenge you to ask yourself difficult questions but it’s all wrapped up in a disarming sitcom-like veneer of comedy making it an easy pill to swallow. I commend Soulpepper, a classical theatre company, for choosing to program a play that feels so immediately relevant.
- Cowboy Versus Samurai is playing through February 20, 2016 at the Young Centre for the Arts, 50 Tank House Lane, in the Distillery Historic District, Toronto.
- Tickets $25 – $60 (plus service charge);
- Tickets are available in person at the venue box office, by phone at 416-866-8666 or online at soulpepper.ca.
Photo of TJ Riley & Jonathan Tan by Cylla von Tiedemann