I am a big fan of the Vampire Cowboys. The company’s blend of pop culture allusions, martial arts battles, and emotionally impactful drama is both distinctive and theatrically vibrant. Six Rounds of Vengeance, from playwright Qui Nguyen and director Robert Ross Parker, is not the company’s best effort. However, the production—co-presented by New Ohio Theatre—is still a lot of fun to watch.
Set in a post-apocalyptic “Lost Vegas,” the story teams up ex-cop Malcolm Price (Sheldon Best) with bounty hunters Jess December (Jamie Dunn) and Lucky (Tom Myers)—who is much more than he initially seems—as they seek to take down the vampire Queen Mad (Nicky Schmidlein).
Nguyen has set this play in the same world as his 2009 play Soul Samurai, with the vampire gang members once again nicknamed the Long Tooths and with Six Rounds even including a flashback featuring that gang’s leader, Boss 2K, who is performed by Best, reprising a role that he originated in Soul Samurai.
The playwright is overly reliant on numerous flashbacks such as that one to deliver exposition, and some judicious editing could make the production less clunky. However, these glimpses into the past do prove important, particularly in setting up the emotional stakes for Malcolm as we get to see several interactions between him and his husband Nathaniel (Jon Hoche), who ended up as an early victim of the vampires and whose death fuels Malcolm’s thirst for vengeance.
As in all Vampire Cowboys productions, there are several fight sequences throughout. These are choreographed by Nguyen and are both dynamic and comical. Parker’s direction further stylizes these scenes by having actors not involved in particular battles come on stage holding white picture frames that evoke the image of comic book panels. The combatants hold a pose while captured in a frame and sometimes we even get a series of poses as the panels follow one of the fighters being punched, kicked, or knocked to the ground.
Best and Hoche at first seem a bit tentative in displaying their characters’ affection for one another, but they do eventually share a searing kiss. The rapport they develop together is undoubtedly loving, yet not free of conflict. The strengths and weaknesses of Malcolm and Nathaniel’s relationship are what gives the play its heart, and which makes the inevitable end to their tale impactful.
The parallel love story between Jess and Lucky is not as effective, perhaps because Dunn and Myers do not generate enough onstage chemistry to make it real to the audience. They do, however, excel at performing a rap number that advertises their bounty hunter credentials as “The Devils.”
Shane Rettig is credited with both original music and sound design, and should share in the praise for the song’s effectiveness. Rettig also provides dramatic underscoring at key moments, as well as the soundtrack to several of the fights. His selection of a thrash metal cover of Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” is an inspired choice for one of the feistier battles.
Speaking of inspired design elements, David Valentine has outdone himself with the full body operated puppet for Lucky’s final appearance. It dramatically shows the changes in the character while also being hilariously over the top.
Six Rounds of Vengeance is presented by New Ohio Theatre and Vampire Cowboys at the New Ohio (154 Christopher Street). Performances are Wednesday-Sunday at 8pm. Tickets are $18 for adults, $15 for students and seniors. To purchase or for more information, call 888-596-1027 or visit NewOhioTheatre.org. For more information on the Vampire Cowboys, visit www.vampirecowboys.com.