“Cowboy Versus Samurai” takes a love story for the ages and turns it upside down at The Pear

By Ande Jacobson

The story of Cyrano de Bergerac has been told innumerable times. This story is a fictionalized account of a real person, and the play that started it all was penned by Edmond Rostand in 1897. The original play has been translated into many languages and adapted into other plays and movies worldwide over the years. In 2006, a new stage adaptation entitled Cowboy Versus Samurai, written by prolific playwright and screenwriter Michael Golamco, was published. The Pear is currently presenting this Golamco incarnation which moves the action to Breakneck, Wyoming, and adds a few new elements to the story.

Golamco has been quoted as saying that his play is “Cyrano de Bergerac with race as the big nose,” although there is far more involved than mere physical attractiveness. In Breakneck, there are initially only two Asian Americans in town. Travis Park (Lorenz Angelo Gonzales) is a high school English teacher. He’s a Korean-American transplant from Los Angeles who arrived in town a few years earlier in an attempt to get away from the chaos of the big city and the shambles of his life there. Chester A. Arthur (Chuck Lacson) is the only other Asian American resident. Chester was adopted by a local, white family as a baby, and he has been searching for a key to his biological heritage his whole life. Del (Drew Reitz) is the school’s P.E. teacher and a wannabe cowboy. He is a stereotypically, dim-witted jock who uses the word dumb as a noun in reference to himself, i.e., he is “a dumb.” Veronica Lee (Heather Mae Steffen) is another Korean-American who moves into town adding a third Asian American to the mix. She’s recently arrived from NYC and is the high school’s new biology teacher who shares a classroom with Travis. Like Travis, she has come to town to escape some of the big city chaos.

Chester founded BAAA – the Breakneck Asian American Alliance – to address Asian oppression, such as trying to get the local grocery store to carry tofu. Their organizational meetings are a source of witty repartee and consternation. Travis and Chester are the unlikeliest of friends given Travis is erudite and well-spoken, and Chester is kind of a militant hick with delusions of ninja-inspired grandeur. One might initially wonder what, other than race, brought these two together. As the plot thickens, it becomes clear that Travis feels a little sorry for Chester and clearly wants to help him.

Veronica’s arrival stirs the pot. Chester sees her presence as a cause for celebration and hopeful conquest. Travis sees her as an intelligent “officemate” and is somewhat smitten given their numerous common interests and histories. The only problem is that Veronica has “preferences” where dating interests are concerned, and those do not include Asian men. Enter Del and the start of the quirky, eloquent Cyrano story.

Ting Na Wang’s scenic design is appealing. A unit set is used for this production, featuring a gorgeous mural painted along the entire upstage wall. A classroom door defines the stage right boundary, and a teacher’s desk is positioned in front of the door. A moveable student desk is normally center stage, though that is moved a bit with the action. A working lamppost hugged by weeds is upstage right. A short, wooden, two-railed fence is immediately downstage of the lamppost. The fence runs along the upstage portion slightly in front of and beneath the mural. There is a cottage door on a platform stage left that is used both as a porch and a living space within the cottage, depending on the scene.

Jeffrey Lo directs this production beautifully and is assisted by Kaede Komatsuzaki. Lo’s cast isn’t completely authentic for the roles as defined, but his tight ensemble shines. Every characterization and movement is believable, even when some of the dialogue becomes rather farcical at times, particularly where Chester’s militancy is concerned. Lacson is clearly adept at playing larger venues as his exuberance and enthusiasm as Chester more than fill the space. In fact, he is slightly overpowering when viewed from the front row. All four actors show a great deal of depth and sensitivity in their portrayals. While audiences might expect Gonzales’ and Steffen’s characters to show such depth, Reitz and Lacson also evolve through the story. One very heated Act 2 exchange between Chester and Veronica is particularly gripping, each one taking verbal stabs at the other in rapid succession, each drawing the other out in bouts of unexpected honesty and deep feeling. Del too shows insights that one wouldn’t expect from his character through a discussion with Travis late in Act 2.

In the end, the story really is about love, not race. The message is that love goes far deeper than strictly the romantic variety. Golamco touches upon romantic love to be sure, but he also delves deeply into love of self, and love as friendship. Golamco makes it clear that one cannot love others if he cannot love himself. The script’s use of the letters Travis writes for Del to impress Veronica provide context and background that is both instructive and entertaining, particularly with Del’s delivery of material through those letters that is clearly not about him. They give the audience, and Del, a detailed look at what makes Travis tick.

One minor bit of inconsistency in staging is worth noting. At one point, Travis has all of the letters in hand, and he starts skimming them. The problem is that although audience members cannot read the writing, they can see through the page enough to notice that Travis is holding the letters sideways (at least they can from the front row). Perhaps this is an artistic choice to denote Travis’ life running slightly askew, or it’s an oversight.

Lo also provides the sound design for this production, and his choice of music for preshow, scene changes, and intermission provide an interesting mood mix. There is of course some country-western influence as one might expect in cowboy country, but there are also disco and pop elements, and even a hint of Hoagy Carmichael at one point.

There is some colorful language and innuendo interspersed along the way, but it is not gratuitous and instead sounds genuine in the course of the discussion. There is also high comedy in the more farcical portions of the story, particularly where Chester is concerned. While probably not appropriate for very young children, this Pear production is definitely worth a look.

What:  Cowboy Versus Samurai, by Michael Golamco
Where:  The Pear Theatre, 1110 La Avenida St., Mountain View, CA 94043
When:  Continues Thursdays – Sundays through 8 April 2018

See http://thepear.org or call (650)254-1148 for tickets or more information.

(Photos courtesy of Michael Craig/The Pear)

References:
Cowboy Versus Samurai (script)
Cyrano de Bergerac


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In finding one’s Mecca, it’s the journey that counts

By Ande Jacobson

The Pear’s current production is another alarmingly topical piece from the not-too-distant past. This time, audiences are transported back to 1974 and the rural village of New Bethesda (properly named Nieu-Bethesda) in the Karoo region of South Africa. Athol Fugard’s play, The Road to Mecca, incorporates themes of racial and gender inequality and religious fervor that are so prevalent in the rural South African culture of the time. These issues are in the forefront of this work, at times uncomfortably so. Additionally, the themes of trust, love, aging, and artistic freedom and inspiration are explored in a powerful way. This is a challenging piece, and the Pear gives it the respect and sensitivity it deserves. Continue reading

The prescience of Henrik Ibsen’s ‘An Enemy of the People’ – who knew?

By Ande Jacobson

The Pear never backs away from edgy theatre, a tradition that’s alive and well in their current production – An Enemy of the People. Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 political masterpiece premiered in London in 2008 and made its Broadway debut in 2012. Though this version of Ibsen’s story is 90 minutes shorter than the original (the Pear’s production runs approximately 120 minutes including the intermission) and includes updated (and translated) language, the integrity of Ibsen’s material remains intact. The surprising aspect of this work is that although it depicts a situation in 1880s Norway, its themes and issues are just as pertinent to U.S. society today and include altruism and whistleblowing vs. profit and venal self-interest; media manipulation vs. the truth; free speech; and the educated elite vs. the working class. Continue reading

Paroxysms, circa 1880s, abound at the Pear

By Ande Jacobson

According to a handy, modern medical dictionary, a paroxysm is defined as:

  1. a sudden violent attack, especially a spasm or convulsion, or
  2. the abrupt worsening of symptoms or recurrence of disease.

In a broad sense, the first definition fits the 1880s meaning in terms of all outward appearances, but that’s not exactly what they meant by the word in those days – at least as it’s used in Sarah Ruhl’s play, In the Next Room or the vibrator play, currently on stage at the Pear Theatre. This work was inspired by Rachel P. Maines‘ research. Maines specializes in the history of technology and accidently discovered an odd connection between medical practice of late 19th century and technological advances in the use of electricity based on ads from numerous American women’s magazines from the era. The new gadget of the time was the precursor to the modern vibrator, and it was used to treat the nebulous, mostly female malady known as “hysteria” through “manipulation of the uterus” resulting in “paroxysms” that were supposed to fix the imbalance. Looking back from the present, it seems far more likely that the symptoms this 19th century device was supposed to treat resulted from taboos surrounding intimacy, ignorance, fiendish fashion norms, gender discrimination, and an extremely patriarchal society. Continue reading

It’s time for ‘Pear Slices 2017’

By Ande Jacobson

For the 14th time, the Pear lovingly offers up eight new slices of theatre in the form of short, one-act plays (in reality more akin to a series of single scenes) that provide a full evening (or afternoon) of entertainment. What started as an experiment has become an annual event showcasing somewhere between six and nine new works, written by members of the Pear Playwrights Guild, and performed by a select troupe of actors assuming multiple roles throughout the presentation. This year’s Slices includes:

  • For Art’s Sake by Elyce Melmon
  • Stella Wind by Bridgette Dutta Portman
  • Mirror to Face by Leah Halper
  • Anasazi Breakdown by Douglas Rees
  • Deuce Cooper: The Bloomfield Case by Paul Braverman
  • Aboriginal by Susan Jackson
  • Meantime in Between Time by Leah Halper
  • Proposal by Max Gutmann

Continue reading

The Pear’s “Uncanny Valley” touches the heart of the Silicon Valley

uncanny-valley-2By Ande Jacobson

The Pear takes a stunning leap into the world of science fiction with Thomas Gibbons’ play, Uncanny Valley. What constitutes sentience, and more than that, what makes a person a person? Taking a further leap, can we conceive of a time when a robot could be considered a person? The world of science fiction has explored this in myriad ways over the years. In the mid-20th century, Isaac Asimov set forth the Three Laws of Robotics in his short story Runaround (one of the stories in the I Robot collection) which stated:

  • A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  • A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  • A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

Continue reading

Praise the simplicity of rural Russian life at The Pear

UV_5423By Ande Jacobson

Did Anton Chekhov write tragedies? Comedies? Dramas? Dave Sikula has taken a very deep dive into Chekhov’s legacy, writing translations of several of his major works, including The Pear’s current offering, Uncle Vanya. As Sikula noted in a 2013 San Francisco Theater Pub blog post while working on this translation, Chekhov thought his plays were comedies, and he tends to agree with that assessment. Stanislavski, from Chekhov’s time, disagreed and thought his plays were heavy dramas of the darkest order, which is reputed to have driven Chekhov to distraction. So what is Uncle Vanya? Continue reading

The Pear explores communication complexities in “Tribes”

pear-tribes-sylvia-billyBy Ande Jacobson

The Pear makes quite a statement with its current production of Tribes, by Nina Raine. Humans are by nature tribal, i.e., as a species, we tend to gather based on some kind of commonality. That commonality can be defined in many ways such as being descended from a common ancestor, forming a community of common customs and traditions, following a common leader, or any other distinction that provides a basis for cohesion. Within a given tribe, there’s usually some form of hierarchy, and in modern times, it’s common for someone to belong to a number of tribes. Continue reading

The nightly rise and fall of “The Walls of Jericho”

pear-jericho-1By Ande Jacobson

The Pear christened its new space on 19 September 2015 with the gala opening of The Walls of Jericho, and A Good Reed Review missed it. Although a little late to the party this time, this world premiere run of Diane Tasca’s stage adaptation of Samuel Hopkins Adams’ short story, “Night Bus”, was well-worth waiting for. In this second week of production, the cast members are comfortable in their characters, and the new space is everything one could hope for in an intimate black box theatre. Continue reading

The Pear explores the intimacy of love, friendship, and yes, “Intimate Apparel”

intimate-apparelBy Ande Jacobson

Lynn Nottage’s title, Intimate Apparel, sounds like it may be an advertisement for Victoria Secret, but that only scratches the surface of the material central to this play as Pear Avenue Theatre’s production explores many levels of intimacy beyond the clothing. This is a play about friendship, love, marriage, class, race, and yes, hand-crafted intimate garments. Continue reading