A Teacher Writes Love Letters for a Rival in “Cowboy Versus Samurai”; Theatre Intime Succeeds with Modern Retelling of “Cyrano de Bergerac”
“COWBOY VERSUS SAMURAI”: Performances are underway for “Cowboy Versus Samurai.” Presented by Theatre Intime and the East West Theater Company at Princeton University, and directed by Jacy Duan ‘21, the play runs through March 9 at the Hamilton Murray Theater. Veronica (Megan Pan ’22, left) and Travis (Richard Peng ’20) have much in common. However, Veronica’s romantic preferences exacerbate Travis’ insecurities about his identity, presenting obstacles to the development of their relationship. (Photo by Naomi Park ’21)
By Donald H. Sanborn III
Things in nature always hide. Lizards change the color of their skins. Moths live or die based on the color of their wings,” muses Del, a high school P.E. teacher who is Caucasian. “They do these things because when you stand out in the world you invite danger. You … will be eaten alive by something that was waiting for you to show yourself. And that’s how I felt, standing like a shadow on your outskirts, invisible.”
This poetic monologue turns out to be one of many letters written, on Del’s behalf, to Veronica Lee, an intelligent and charming Asian American woman who has recently moved to the small town of Breakneck, Wyoming, to teach biology. The author of the letters is Travis Park, an English teacher who is Del’s friend and colleague, and the only Korean American man in Breakneck. Travis loves Veronica, but she prefers to date white men.
Theatre Intime and the East West Theater Company of Princeton University are presenting a talented production of Cowboy Versus Samurai. Michael Golamco, a playwright of Filipino and Chinese American descent, crafts this witty but moving romantic comedy as a contemporary re-imagining of Cyrano de Bergerac.
Although de Bergerac (1619-1655) was real, Edmond Rostand’s 1897 drama fictionalizes the life of the author and duelist. In Rostand’s play, de Bergerac’s large nose causes him to fear that he is too ugly to court his distant cousin, Roxanne. Cyrano ghostwrites letters to Roxanne on behalf of the handsome Christian de Neuvillette, a fellow soldier.
In Golamco’s version, the male protagonist’s insecurities stem not from his facial features, but from his certainty that Veronica’s racial preferences in a partner cannot change. We discover that Travis has been scarred by an incident that happened in the course of a previous relationship.
“I decided to propose this show when I realized the theatre season this year at Princeton completely lacked any representation of Asian experiences and stories,” director Jacy Duan states in a press release for the production, adding that the play “is particularly special in tackling the internalized racism and insecurities that come with being an Asian American in a supposedly post-racial society … it relates the absurdities of modern-day dating, especially as a person of color.”
In a program note Duan elaborates that “our physical attraction does not exist in a bubble, but we are racial projects, informed by the society we live in. Why else is there such a disparity in response rates between races in dating apps like Tinder and OkCupid?”
Cowboy Versus Samurai was premiered in 2005 by the National Asian American Theatre Company, at the Rattlestick Theatre in New York City. Given that the script designates the “present day” as the time period, it is notable that the show does not seem particularly aware of the internet. Social media was relatively new in 2005, but dating websites were well established. (OkCupid, the site mentioned by Duan, launched in 2004.)
It would add an interesting layer if Rostand’s play had been updated even more, to explore the technological aspect of modern relationships. Instead, the world of the show appears comparatively low-tech. Travis is seen using a typewriter, and “Del’s” letters to Veronica are written on paper.
When Travis and Veronica meet, they immediately enjoy a pleasant conversation, which leads to Travis making dinner for Veronica at her home. However, in the interest of his friends’ happiness, Travis reluctantly agrees to ghostwrite letters for Del, a stereotypical all-American cowboy who, for all his bravado, faces insecurities of his own: he fears he lacks the verbal eloquence to interest Veronica.
Chester, a self-described “samurai” and militant leader of the two-person Breakneck Asian American Alliance (BAAA) — of which Travis is the unwilling second member — vehemently opposes Travis’s decision to help Del. Chester’s ancestry is uncertain; he was adopted, and his parents “forgot to ask the adoption people which country he came from,” as Travis explains to Veronica. Chester, who prays to Bruce Lee, is the assistant manager of “the only ethnic restaurant in town”: Taco Tuesday.
In addition to the changes in location and time period, audiences familiar with Cyrano de Bergerac will notice other deviations from Rostand’s version, particularly in the latter part of the second act. This is entirely within Golamco’s right, though two characters are paired off in a way that is rather abrupt and unbelievable, because it is not supported by events that lead up to it.
However, in addition to the script’s probing exploration of stereotypes and racial identity, as well as media portrayals of different cultures, the dialogue has a nice thematic unity. Del relates an anecdote about a horse he had; Veronica casually nicknames Travis “Hoss” when they meet; and at one point Chester refers to a “white-winged steed.”
Where Golamco is particularly successful, however, is in giving actors ample scope for comedic but layered performances. The dialogue contains plenty of snappy one-liners; “I’m not rejecting you because of your race,” Veronica quietly but acerbically assures Chester, as she rebuffs his advances. But the humor works so well because it is character-driven. Golamco pits Travis and Veronica, who wish to quietly assimilate into the culture of their new home, against stereotypical role-players such as Del and Chester — and lets the personality types bounce off of each other.
The cast members make the most of this, delivering performances that are uniformly strong. As the mild-mannered Travis, Richard Peng has excellent chemistry with Megan Pan, who plays the equally soft-spoken but more self-assured Veronica.
As Del, Chris Leahy strikes the right balance between bravado and vulnerability, which ensures that the character is likeable. This is crucial, given that the audience’s sympathies are mostly in favor of Travis.
Jonathan Som is especially entertaining as the swaggering, vociferous Chester. With precise comic timing and intrusive body language, he lets the character’s antics provide the necessary contrast to the reserved Travis, as well as the macho but earnest Del.
In this Som is aided by costume designer Lydia Gompper, who provides the character with a variety of distinctive clothes, including a white headband. Travis and Veronica are given tasteful dark sweaters. Del’s light green shirt, of course, is matched with a cowboy hat, blue jeans, and a shiny brass belt.
The lighting by Aimee Sampayan creates some striking silhouettes, and is particularly effective during a scene in which a burning barn is described. Wendy Ho’s dual set demarcates the school and Veronica’s sparse but cozy apartment.
In addition to eliciting polished performances from the cast, Duan makes some astute choices in terms of staging. An argument between Travis and Del occurs on the same side of the stage as a jovial game of catch played by those two men earlier in the show. Metaphorically they are throwing the courtship of Veronica back and forth between them. The show keeps the audience guessing which of the two, if either, ultimately will end up with her.
“Cowboy Versus Samurai” will play at the Hamilton Murray Theater in Murray Dodge Hall, Princeton University, through March 9. For tickets, show times, and further information call (609) 258-5155 or visit theatreintime.org.