February 12, 2020 at 12:05 pm PST | by John Paul King
Geffen actress connects with hidden queer history in swashbuckling ‘Revenge Song’

Margaret Odette stars as Julie d’Aubigny, a real-life 17th-Century Frenchwoman who defied gender boundaries, in the Geffen Playhouse production of “Revenge Song: A Vampire Cowboys Creation” (Photo Credit: Jeff Lorch)

Vampire Cowboys have taken up residence in the Geffen Playhouse, and they’re inviting you to come and pay them a visit.

Before anyone becomes alarmed, rest assured that statement is not nearly as frightening as it sounds. Vampire Cowboys are an OBIE Award-winning theatre company that is about to take the stage in the Gil Cates Theater with their newest creation, a work commissioned by the Geffen from their co-artistic director, Qui Nguyen – who is also a lauded playwright (his “Soul Samurai” was a GLAAD Media Award nominee) and TV/Film writer.

The latest work from Nguyen and his troupe is titled “Revenge Song: A Vampire Cowboys Creation,” and it tells the story of Julie d’Aubigny, a real-life 17th century Frenchwoman who became a scandalous and legendary figure as a cross-dressing swordswoman and opera singer after spending her youth in the court of King Louis XIV, where she had been a concubine from the age of 13.

The company, which rose to New York success as purveyors of “Geek Theatre,” is known for a  trademark mélange of fiercely theatrical elements, blending drama, humor, music, and action, as well as for its dedication to diversity in its casting; the new production is no exception, promising in its press release to turn this historical fantasia into “a hilarious, historical comedy with hip hop, rock and epic fight scenes.”

Actress Margaret Odette, who plays Julie, spoke to the Blade about her role, the show, and what it’s like to be a Vampire Cowboy.

Our conversation is below:

 

Los Angeles Blade: Let’s start with your character. What can you tell us about Julie d’Aubigny?

Margaret Odette: She’s kind of difficult to describe because her life was so vast and so different from a lot of women existing in her time – and I’m sure from a lot of women existing today.

Blade: History doesn’t tell us much about her beyond the basic facts of her life.

Odette: History is very patriarchal, in its reporting, so unless you are royalty or you had some kind of political activism within your lineage, as a woman, you just fade into the abyss – but that’s what’s so exciting about getting to portray her, and about getting to bring her into people’s consciousness. [Laughing] Even though, in our production, we are exploding the information we have about her into a Vampire Cowboys aesthetic.

Blade: From what we do know, it seems that she lived what from our modern perspective looks like a queer life.

Odette: I’m not clear on what language existed around gender expression and sexual identity in 17th-Century France – certainly it was not as comprehensive and expansive as we have today. I’m not sure that Julie would identify [as queer] back then, but I think in today’s terms, she would certainly be along the spectrum of gender expression, and sexuality expression as well. It’s so exciting to learn about someone like this, from this time, because we think the struggle for sexual and gender identity is a modern experience – but it’s as old as socialized human existence, and it’s been swept into the closet… for lack of a better expression.

Blade: Her story also resonates with the struggle for women’s rights. Wasn’t she essentially sold by her father as a concubine to a count?

Odette: That becomes the driving force behind what she wants, throughout our tale. It’s in the journey to this revenge, against this person who committed this cardinal sin against her, that she encounters people that expand her notions of what love and intimacy can be. And she gets to kick a lot of ass.

What’s wonderful about working with Vampire Cowboys is that all of their projects put women at the forefront of the narrative, and put people of color in roles that may not have historically been a person of color – and they are not the ‘sidekicks,’ they are always the heroes, not just of their own lives but of the universe within the play. In my experience as an actress of color, that’s really still quite rare.

It’s exciting to get to share this with audiences, and have them see multiple bodies of color playing out heroic figures on stage – and having just a kick-ass time, you know? Just having fun on stage.

Blade: Vampire Cowboys is also known for taking a blockbuster approach to theatre, right? Mixing singing, dancing, action, drama – kind of an entertainment spectacular?

Odette: At the core we’re really all a bunch of nerds in this company – we grew up loving comic books, and watching action movies, loving things that we could only experience on those pages or on the silver screen. And we love juxtaposing really high octane, funny moments right up against moments where it’s just the characters, on a deep level. You get a nuanced emotional landscape out of these plays.

What’s so fun about these plays is that because of all these stage elements that we bring to it, you’re truly getting an experience you can only have live, it’s like you’re seeing a movie, in live action, in front of you.

In this show, we use all those big elements to get Julie to that core enemy that she’s had since she was a kid. And you’ll have to come see to find out how she handles that in the end.

Blade: In playing Julie, was there a personal connection that helped you find her journey?

Odette: What excites me about getting to inhabit her is how universal the experience of being an outsider is – the feeling of not fitting, especially as a woman of color in an industry that is still dominantly white, cisgender, heteronormative, and male. It’s a space where I often feel like I am “the only,” or one of the “very few,” and it sometimes seems like something that just isn’t built for me.

Julie created spaces for herself everywhere she went – she had to in order to survive, and to thrive as the person she continually discovered herself to be. I find a lot of parallel to that in my life – with her fighting her way in and thriving in that space, with the support of her colleagues.

Blade: Is that where you are now?

Odette: I feel completely on the path that I’m meant to be on, as an artist, in my life, and I love using the opportunities that I have to bring more artists of marginalized experience into this world that is so enjoyable and so fulfilling for me.

Blade: What do you hope the audience will get out of “Revenge Song,” besides a swashbuckling good time?

Odette: Hopefully they are not just entertained, but really excited to see more stories about women that come from the vast canon of historical experience. I hope it inspires people, not just audiences, but other artists and writers, to think about incorporating more women characters that expand our notion of what historical women were like.

And it’s really fun to watch women kicking ass onstage!

 

“Revenge Song” runs February 14 – March 8 at the Geffen Playhouse. For schedule and tickets, visit their website.

 

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