Crowd-Source the Dragon: Qui Nguyen and His Vampire Cowboys Are Back

<em>The Inexplicable Redemption of Agent G</em> has ninjas, kung-fu, girl fights

"She Kills Monsters." (Photo by Joan Marcus)

The dragon is called the Tiamat, and in last fall’s production of Qui Nguyen’s She Kills Monsters, this firebreather closed the show. As the terrified heroine cowered in a spotlight, smoke filled the Flea Theater’s narrow stage. When the lights rose, there was the monster: a colossal five-headed puppet whose handlers were neatly concealed behind the fog. As a practical effect, the Tiamat was convincing enough to make one swear off CGI forever. As theatrical spectacle, it was a highlight of 2011.

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Mr. Nguyen, whose name is pronounced “kwee gwen,” could have used any “random red dragon” in Monsters, but chose the Tiamat by polling his fans on Facebook. “I know what my audience likes,” he said last week over lunch at a Ninth Avenue diner. “And that’s part of how I work as an artist. I’m very crowd-sourcey.”

Knowing his fans, and giving them what they want, has secured a place in the Off-Broadway cosmos for Mr. Nguyen and his company, Vampire Cowboys. His plays are fast, funny, packed with combat, dance and genre play, and distinguished from other slick, tongue-in-cheek entertainment by their utter lack of irony. On Tuesday night his newest work, The Inexplicable Redemption of Agent G, opened off Broadway in a coproduction with the Ma-Yi Theatre. Although it features all the Vampire Cowboy hallmarks—“ninjas, kung-fu, girl fights,” as Mr. Nguyen put it—it is the most personal work they have ever produced. Without forgoing the swordplay, the Vampire Cowboys are growing up.

Mr. Nguyen and his most frequent collaborators, director Robert Ross Parker and designer Nick Francone, formed Vampire Cowboys after meeting at Ohio University’s graduate theater program. For the past 10 years, they have produced genre-colliding shows with titles like Living Dead in Denmark—a Shakespearean zombie romp—and Soul Samurai—a blaxploitation thriller set in postapocalyptic Brooklyn. Their emphasis on fun has impressed people like Jim Simpson, artistic director of the Flea.

“They know how to put on a show,” Mr. Simpson said. “They know that if you put the smoke machine out and get a woman fighting a five-headed dragon, that is an ending!”

Swordplay has always been close to Mr. Nguyen’s heart. He spent his first years in New York working as a fight director, and spent three years teaching stage combat at Columbia before he and Ms. Marcus moved to Minneapolis in 2010. Warnings from his graduate school professors that fight scenes were better left to film only made him more interested in putting action on stage.

“I don’t think Shakespeare sat around and complained, ‘Well, I want to put in a sword fight, but that’s really a film technique,’” Mr. Nguyen said. “In film you’re constrained by realism, but I can just have five puppets and some smoke and it becomes a dragon.”

Crystal Skillman, a playwright who is writing a show for the company, called Mr. Nguyen’s work “the closest you can get to animation on stage,” comparing him to Pixar for his ability to leap from heartfelt to action-packed in a single bound. Where other companies may ask a writer to scale back her vision, Ms. Skillman said, the Cowboys’ attitude is that “nothing is impossible.”

“Qui and I are playwrights who have always been focused on story,” she said. “Five years ago it wasn’t like that. There were more language plays, but less story.” A commitment to unsubtle theater has made the Vampire Cowboys stand out in a city packed with small, obsessively esoteric companies. In the words of Mr. Francone, their style is “big ideas painted with a big brush.”

“Our only motto is ‘Whatever it is, it has to be awesome,’” he said.

The company spent its early years being awesome without being noticed. This changed in 2003, when Mr. Nguyen met Abby Marcus, his future wife. Attracted to his work, she said, because of “how entertaining it was, how fun it was, how visceral and live an experience it was,” she took it upon herself to find the Cowboys an audience. Their breakthrough came in 2007, at the second New York Comic Con, where Ms. Marcus arranged to have them show off their stage combat chops to promote the superhero play Men of Steel.

“They had a professional enough pitch that we knew they weren’t four nuts in a basement,” said Lance Fensterman, show manager for the Con, “but it was insane and unique enough that we knew they got our audience.”

After their first appearance at the convention, Ms. Marcus offered discounts to any fanboys who came to a Vampire Cowboys show dressed as a superhero. Besides inviting theater critics to see Mr. Nguyen’s plays, she brought in groups of gaming societies, people who were making comic book podcasts—people who became, Mr. Nguyen said, “ambassadors to these subcultures that would be loyal to us for a very long time.”

Crowd-Source the Dragon: Qui Nguyen and His Vampire Cowboys Are Back