Review: ‘Revenge Song’ — An inappropriate, nasty play

Reina Guthrie (center) and ensemble in "Revenge Song." Photo by Jenny Graham
June 29, 2022

Rule-breaking comedy? Or disgusting, offensive violence?

By Lee Juillerat for Ashland.news

For several decades I’ve seen virtually every play at Ashland’s Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The vast majority are excellent.

“Revenge Song, A Vampire Cowboys Production,” written by Qui Nguyen, is easily the worst. It’s something the festival’s managers should have never considered. Call me a prude, but incessant swearing, acts of violence, including a mass murder, running away from the law, beating up other people, for whatever allegedly justifiable reason, should not be condoned or celebrated.

Reina Guthrie and Donna Simone Johnson in “Revenge Song.” Photo by Jenny Graham

“Revenge” is couched as a rule-breaking comedy. The program does caution: “‘Revenge Song’ contains strong profanity, nuns in garters, sexuality and sexual dialogue, alcohol and drug abuse, ableist language, violence, fake blood, coercions, grooming, discussion of self-harm and scars, misogyny and perhaps most frighteningly — cultural appropriation.”

In an era of mass murders — 12 incidents since April, most notably in Uvalde, Texas, and Buffalo, New York — presenting a play that promotes killing others should be unacceptable. If the revenge promoted in “Revenge” is acceptable at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, why shouldn’t other disenfranchised people be free to seek their own revenge? If burning down a monastery and its inhabitants is justifiable, why should an 18-year-old with assault weapons be vilified?

In the director’s notes, Robert Ross Parker absurdly justifies the play’s violence, non-stop use of the “F” word — you’ll hear it screamed and sung hundreds of times in two hours — and theme of justifiable and insidious revenge:

“We wanted to bring popular stories, and genres to the stage. And disrupt the rules about how those stories are told. We wanted to tell stories about badass gender-bending heroes that were BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ included in cheering those heroes on. Finally, we wanted to expand who feels invited into the theatre to celebrate those victories.

“I’m so excited to bring our particular brand of mayhem to OSF and the Lizzie (the Elizabethan Theatre). ‘Revenge Song’ is a rollicking, swashbuckling gut busting musical-comedy adventure spectacle. But, at the same time, I hope it’s iconoclastic and subversive and blows up expectations about who gets to fall in love, kill the bad guy and save the world.”

Donna Simone Johnson and Reina Guthrie in “Revenge Song.” Photo by Jenny Graham

Sorry, but that, to put it politely, is B.S. As one viewer commented afterwards, “Shakespeare would be disgusted.”

People, including me, swear and curse when angered,but in the play the “F” word and variations are used excessively and become tediously crude and offense. “Revenge” ends with a screaming song that basically consists of “Mother-F!” Is that the best way the playwright can express himself? Likewise, although I’m not religious, the views and acts justified go beyond reason. Catholics, especially: Be prepared to be offended. Some playgoers were visibly disgusted, getting up and leaving during the first and second acts. The theater, which normally is sold-out, was about two-thirds full when the play began — and there were several more empty seats after intermission.

As always, “Revenge” displays the festival’s theatrical brilliance. The acting is excellent. The lighting, staging, costumes, choreography — all are creative, insightful, precise.  Appropriately for the play’s theme, the music is loud and often angry. The exception is “Sweet Song,” about a father’s love for his daughter.

“Revenge” does address a genuine issue, the historic subjugation of women. But when the so-called “superhero” — as Nguyen writes, “She was special because she was a rule breaker” — is treated sympathetically although she plots and carries out distorted acts of revenge, that theme is forgotten.

There’s a double standard exposed by “Revenge.” If OSF can present plays that justify, endorse and, worse, glorify people who murder and create destruction — as Parker claims and as festival managers seemingly endorse — should the Proud Boys and groups involved at the January 6 Capitol insurrection, or Al-Qaeda or Islamic terrorists, likewise be allowed to claim their actions are justifiable and honorable? Were the mass murderers in Buffalo and Uvalde “superheroes”?

“Revenge Song” is disgusting. It’s a play that deserves a quick death.

Email freelance writer Lee Juillerat at 337lee337@charter.net.

Reader’s comments on this review appear in Ashland.news Letters to the Editor and on our Facebook page.

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Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.

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