Cowboy Versus Samurai, Ernest Versus Ernestine
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Cowboy Versus Samurai, Ernest Versus Ernestine

Soulpepper Theatre’s Studio Series has smart fun with love, sex, race, and angry couples.

TJ Riley and  Jonathan Tan in a scene from Soulpepper Theatre's production of Cowboy Versus Samurai, part of the company's Studio Series  Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

TJ Riley and Jonathan Tan in a scene from Soulpepper Theatre’s production of Cowboy Versus Samurai, part of the company’s Studio Series. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Cowboy Versus Samurai

stars 3andahalf9

The Anger in Ernest and Ernestine

stars 3andahalf9

Young Centre for the Performing Arts (50 Tank House Lane)
Both shows run to Feb. 20
Tickets: $25-$60

Cowboy Versus Samurai. It sounds like one of those movie-genre mashups. Either that or a film studies course comparing Akira Kurosawa and Sergio Leone. In fact, it’s the attention-grabbing title of a play about Asian-Americans in rural Wyoming that owes its inspiration not to Kurosawa or Leone, but to Edmond Rostand.

Michael Golamco‘s popular 2005 romantic comedy, making its Toronto debut as part of Soulpepper Theatre‘s winter Studio Series, is yet another update of Rostand’s ever-popular Cyrano de Bergerac. Only this one cannily replaces 19th-century Romantic self-sacrifice with a more complicated 21st-century take on racial and sexual issues. And while the Los Angeles-based Golamco has written it in the glib style of a sitcom, beneath the wisecracks you’ll find a thoughtful piece that spins contemporary variations on Rostand’s theme of identity.

The setting is Breakneck, Wy., a ranching community with a population of 1,000—only two of whom are of Asian descent: Travis Park (Jonathan Tan), the high school’s English teacher, and his militant buddy Chester (Miquelon Rodriguez), who works at the local taco stand. Travis is Korean and originally from L.A., which he fled to forget a bad breakup. Chester is a Breakneck native and uncertain of his origins—his adoptive parents neglected to find out which Asian country he came from. He makes up for it by identifying with them all and constantly battling for Asian rights in the small town. That mostly involves harassing the local grocer to get him to stock tofu.

And then Breakneck’s Asian population increases by one, with the arrival of new teacher Veronica Lee (Rosie Simon), a Korean-American from New York. Travis is smitten, but there’s a catch: Veronica is only attracted to white guys. So Travis sets out to woo her, Cyrano style, through Del (TJ Riley), the handsome-but-dopey gym teacher. Travis writes eloquent letters for Del to give Veronica, which make Del, a rancher’s son, sound like a closet Cormac McCarthy. Although the fact that, in conversation, Del uses the word “dumb” as a noun should be a tip-off for anyone that the dude’s no writer.

As Travis’ epistolary impersonation of Del suggests, he sees race as simply “wrapping paper”—much to the annoyance of Chester, who depends on his racial origins for a sense of identity. But Travis’ attempts to dismiss its importance come up against the reality of Veronica’s sexual preferences. Is true love possible if your aesthetics don’t match? Cowboy Versus Samurai gives us plenty to chew on as the zingers fly by.

The show marks the Soulpepper directing debut of Korean-Canadian playwright Ins Choi, whose much-loved Kim’s Convenience is currently being reworked into a TV series for CBC. To say that he and Golamco (who is of Filipino and Chinese heritage) are simpatico would be an understatement. Not only do they make clever use of the sitcom format, they also have wicked fun spoofing Asian stereotypes. Golamco’s play gets a lot of laughs courtesy of Rodriguez’s buffoonish, pan-Asian Chester, a self-styled rōnin who prays to Chinese martial arts god Bruce Lee and attempts a clumsy break-in disguised as a ninja. But Golamco also slips in some subtle references to Asian-American cross-pollination in Travis’s letters, which include anecdotes involving baseball and spaghetti westerns.

The show, meanwhile, opens with a delicious bit of Lost in Translation incongruity—Simon, dressed as a Japanese geisha, singing Patsy Cline’s “Crazy.” And Choi also inserts some Asian-Canadian content, kicking off the second act with a Heritage Minute video about Chinese railway workers that gives a local echo to Golamco’s subplot involving one of Chester’s protests.

The casting is solid, with Shaw Festival alumnus Tan as a witty, sensitive Travis and Simon’s Veronica displaying the brash independence of an ex-New Yorker. Like Travis, she’s a veteran of past relationships and makes it a habit of raiding her boyfriends’ porn stashes to gauge their erotic tastes. Riley is a hoot as Del, who may be, as he’d put it, “a dumb,” but harbours no delusions about being a latter-day cowboy. There’s no such thing, he assures Travis—and then proves it by being hilariously gun-shy.

Cowboy Versus Samurai is no Kim’s Convenience—it lacks the rich characterization and emotional heft—but it’s a smart, funny play and a nice complement to the other show in the Studio Series, which also concerns the mysteries of attraction. See below:

Gregory Prest and Raquel Duffy play a young married couple dealing with incompatibility in The Anger in Ernest and Ernestine  Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

Gregory Prest and Raquel Duffy play a young married couple dealing with incompatibility in The Anger in Ernest and Ernestine. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

“You always hurt the one you love,” says Gregory Prest’s Ernest, quoting the ancient Mills Brothers song. He then proceeds to sing it for us in a quavering, scratchy-old-record voice. It’s one of the many ludicrous little gems strewn through Soulpepper’s revival of The Anger in Ernest and Ernestine, the Theatre Columbus hit from the 1980s. But the premise of this loopy comedy about love and anger might as easily be summed up with another old song, the one with the famous line “You like tomato and I like tomahto…” (“Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.”)

Ernest calls what he wears a jacket; Ernestine calls it a sweater. He likes to put the tissue box on the kitchen counter; she wants it on the kitchen table. He’s a dawdling nerd with a touch of OCD who counts his cornflakes as he shakes them into the bowl. She’s a manic multi-tasker whose morning ritual is a klutzy balancing act that always ends with a wild impromptu flamenco dance as she attempts to ram her heels into a pair of black pumps.

In short: they’re classic chalk-and-cheese. Or, to look at it another way, they’re like at least 50 per cent of all couples, since opposites tend to attract. Although, as many know, those differing qualities that you find charming in a lover can morph into irritants when you get married and play house.

In this two-act play by Leah Cherniak, Robert Morgan, and Martha Ross—directed for this revival by Cherniak—Ernest and Ernestine slowly go from starry-eyed to disillusioned after settling into their first home together: a shabby basement apartment dominated by an ornery octopus furnace. At first, they try to cope with one another’s annoying habits and personal quirks. He quietly tidies up the breakfast table after she hits it like a whirlwind; she pretends she isn’t boiling mad when he shows up hours late and ruins their date night. But soon they’ve bottled up so much anger that it’s a toss-up what will blow first—that steam-belching furnace or their tempers.

Ernest and Ernestine has remained enduringly popular not just because it’s so relatable, but thanks to its slightly cartoonish, physical-comedy approach. There’s some French bouffon influence here—Cherniak and Ross trained at the seminal Jacques LeCoq school—but also good ol’ American slapstick in the Keaton-Chaplin tradition. It turns out to be a terrific showcase for two of Soulpepper’s younger members. Raquel Duffy’s Ernestine is something of a revelation: she’s been in a number of Soulpepper comedies, but this time she really gets to strut her stuff. Her morning dance with the too-tight shoes is a nutty tour de force and one of those many funny gems mentioned above.

Prest, fresh from playing one half of another warring couple in Soulpepper’s holiday-season revival of Parfumerie, is a lovably geeky Ernest. He may be a cornflake-counter, but he’s also a closet rock star who can slap on a Bruce Springsteen CD and turn sweeping the floor into an elaborate broom-guitar solo. But his most amusing and telling scene is one in which he relates to us the various diversions that caused him to be late for the date night—an endearing revelation of his meandering but inquisitive mind. If Ernestine could hear what he tells us, she’d surely forgive him—but that’s the problem. The two communicate their thoughts and feelings to the audience, but not to each other. It doesn’t take a marriage counsellor to see that’s going to be an issue.

Ernest and Ernestine was first produced by Theatre Columbus in 1987 at Toronto’s Poor Alex Theatre. (Theatre Columbus is now Common Boots Theatre and the Poor Alex is long gone.) Cherniak’s new staging takes place in a timeless limbo: the characters now have cellphones, but their retro costumes (designed, along with the wonderfully dingy set, by Shannon Lea Doyle) make them look like a couple from the 1950s. In fact, what with their clothes, the apartment, and the marital squabbling, there are times when you’re reminded of that vintage sitcom The Honeymooners.

If there’s any complaint to be made, it’s that the play, which grew out of improvisations, doesn’t have much of a dramatic arc. Apart from a brief, erotic truce (which takes place during the intermission), the tensions just keep building to the inevitable explosion and that’s it. Almost 30 years since its debut, The Anger in Ernest and Ernestine remains a great vehicle for a pair of talented clowns, but something less than a great play.