When thinking of a small, mid-western American town like Breakneck, Wyoming, multiculturalism isn’t exactly the first thing that comes to mind. We imagine mountains, large plains of grazing cattle, horses, cowboys and lots of flannel. However, Michael Golamco’s Cowboy Versus Samurai both destroys and perpetuates this ideal, in a charming and hilarious story of the three Asian-Americans living in said small town. With incredible performances by four very talented actors, under the direction of Ins Choi, audience members are given a comedic, yet insightful look into what it’s like to be an outsider struggling with cultural identity in the heart of the United States.
Rest assured this isn’t some weird sci-fi fantasy come to life with an actual samurai and cowboy duking it out on stage for two hours, but instead, a story about a love triangle between three people struggling with their own cultural identity. Jonathan Tan takes on the samurai with his role as Travis, the Korean-American English teacher in Breakneck’s high school. The cowboy in question is Travis’s good friend and local rancher’s son/gym teacher Del (performed by TJ Riley). The two of them get involved in a love triangle when Korean-American teacher Veronica (Rosie Simon), moves into town, but announces that she does not date other Asian men.
Through this love triangle, Golamco dives into some really touchy subjects, while maintaining a sense of lightheartedness. The plot, while very simple, keeps the audience enthralled with its defined characters. We really began to care about the goings-on on stage. We feel Travis’s frustrations with being in love with a woman who he believes will never love him back, and we fall in love with Del’s innocent charm as he struggles to find the proper way to express himself to Veronica. This play presents us with two protagonists who are their own antagonists, and as the audience, we are rooting for both Del and Travis to get what they want.
We are also given a great insight into what it is like to not know what culture one belongs to, through the hilarious antics of Chester (Miquelon Rodriguez) as he goes from deciding he’s Japanese, to embracing his Chinese heritage, to exclaiming his pride in being a Thai man. This play really helps show that sometimes the best way to make a point is through humour.
This show is very performance-heavy and character-heavy, which is nicely complimented by a minimalistic set. With enough aesthetic elements to depict the Midwest, a classroom, and an apartment, set designer Ken MacKenzie does a great job at ensuring that we are brought into the world without being overpowered by it. I must say, the spaghetti western intro, intermission, and extro, are beyond cool, and really play up the cowboy aspect of this show.
The only part of this piece that I can say I am unsure about is the ending. Without giving too much away, I feel like the play has two endings, one right after the other. The play seems to be wrapping up, but in a single moment, the entire ending changes. It almost feels like the story changes its mind. It’s unfortunate because everything leading up this ending is gold.
As a part of Soulpepper’s Studio Series, Cowboy Versus Samurai is a heartwarming piece of theatre that manages to deliver laughs and cultural insights simultaneously. It won’t be on stage for very long, so I encourage you to see it while you have the chance.
Cowboy Versus Samurai runs at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts until Feb. 20. For more information visit soulpepper.ca.