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BY SEAN EGAN | “Six Rounds of Vengeance,” the latest offering from “geek theater” company Vampire Cowboys, is set in “Lost Vegas” — a post-apocalyptic spin on the city of sin. The stage is set with the remnants of once lively and bustling attractions and businesses abandoned and falling into disrepair, surrounded by rough-hewn wooden fences. Behind this, a video projector periodically displays the vast desert surrounding the city — and the whole stage is framed by gaudy, oversized vanity lights, creating a playful atmosphere.
This rendering of the city serves as something of an apt visual metaphor for the play itself. “Six Rounds of Vengeance” provides audiences a fun diversion tinged with a sense of darkness, and an expansive sandbox for its actors to play in — but, unfortunately, also is undeniably rough around the edges.
The story concerns Malcolm, a former cop, who joins forces with a duo of bounty hunters: the feisty, self-proclaimed “badass” Jess and her burly, hulking sidekick, Lucky. His goal? To avenge the fate of his husband Nathaniel by murdering Queen Mad — a leader amongst the vampires (called “longtooths” here) that have ravaged the country. Yes, true to their name, Vampire Cowboys have produced a vampire revenge western in “Six Rounds.”
The most obvious point of reference for this (which the nerdy audience Vampire Cowboys hopes to court are sure to be familiar with) is the collaborative work of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez. It resembles the modern exploitation flick-style they popularized with “Grindhouse,” (which is particularly echoed in the play’s campy action and the hysterical Blaxploitation-parody cell phone PSA that runs before the show), and works from a similar plot and setting found in “From Dusk Till Dawn.” Fans of these films are sure to get a kick out of the similar aesthetic the company offers, and they get a lot of comic mileage from the set-up. Unfortunately, with such well-known forbearers, whenever Qui Nguyen’s script falters, it comes across as a pale imitation of those artists’ distinctive sensibilities.
This is most notable in the front half of the play, which is burdened with excessive exposition, and pop culture references and zippy quips that should read as effortless, but come across as laborious. Thankfully though, Nguyen seems eager, and his script is bursting with ideas. It doesn’t ever linger too long on things that aren’t working — zooming between flashbacks, video clips, action scenes, and even a surprise musical number to keep the momentum going. And in the back half, after we’ve invested time with the characters, their titular vengeance comes out in full swing. Everything snaps into place here, and the play becomes the bloody and funny romp it aims to be.
The acting is uniformly great. Nicky Schmidlein has an infectious, manic energy as the psychopathic serial killer vampire, Queen Mad, camping things up to dark perfection. With their adorable chemistry Sheldon Best and John Hoche, respectively, bring Malcolm and Nathaniel’s relationship to life, which anchors the best stretches of the show with its tragic trajectory. Here, when the show pushes past its layers of irony to get to the heart of the situation, the play becomes, against all odds, quite melancholy and touching. This makes the Jess/Lucky pairing work less well by comparison though, as Jamie Dunn and Tom Myers operate better playing them as an odd-couple comic creation, and can never quite wring the pathos out of their relationship that the show wants to.
But when “Six Rounds” is firing on all cylinders — as it does in a climactic fight sequence, bringing its emotional center to the fore, and placing it in the context of a comic and intense battle rendered in slow motion — it’s highly entertaining and strangely moving. Plus, it’s hard to argue with the play’s cracked logic when it leads the uncomplicated pleasures of sword-wielding BDSM vampires, profane and demented Claymation tumbleweeds and a giant, rampaging monster puppet. When staring these things down, it’s easy to forget all the production’s flaws, and simply be swept away by the violent, absurdist humor, and be glad that something this proudly weird and, yes, geeky made it to the stage.
SIX ROUNDS OF VENGEANCE
Written by Qui Nguyen
Directed by Robert Ross Parker
A Vampire Cowboys Production
At the New Ohio Theatre
154 Christopher St. (btw. Washington & Greenwich Sts.)
Through May 16, Wed.–Sun. at 8 p.m.
For tickets ($18) and info: newohiotheatre.org
Artist info: vampirecowboys.com