Saturday, July 29, 2023

"The Kung Fu Zombies Saga: Shaman Warrior and Cannibals" by Theater Mu at the Luminary Arts Center

The Walking Dead
would be so different if the zombies could do kung fu. If you're curious what that looks like, go see Theater Mu's world premiere play The Kung Fu Zombies Saga: Shaman Warrior and Cannibals, a compilation/update of two previous plays by Saymoukda Duangphouxay Vongsay. It's not only a thrilling zombie apocalypse story with great fight scenes, not only a coming-of-age tale of a couple of young women on opposite sides of the planet, but it also draws on the culture and history of Laos and the Laotian diaspora. It's a wild ride, with fantastical elements and sci-fi mixed with real family drama and an exploration of grief, loss, and identity. At nearly three hours in length, it is a saga (you can't say they didn't warn us), so have a cup of coffee, take a nap, or see a matinee because you'll want to be awake and alert to experience this epic journey. And if you're curious to know more about the creation of the show, either before or after you see it, listen to Episode 8 of the Twin Cities Theater Chat podcast, in which we interview the playwright along with actor Michelle de Joya.

kung fu fighting - zombies! (photo by Rich Ryan)
Kung Fu Zombies vs. Cannibals premiered ten years ago, and this play adds a prequel. The saga begins with the Shaman Warrior in Act I, embodied by a young girl named Arun. She's the daughter and granddaughter of shamans, learning their ways, and is forced to grow up and take on that role at a young age. Add to that a zombie apocalypse and a younger sister to protect, and it's a tough life for a teenager! But Arun is tough, smart, and kind, and she perseveres. Cut to Act II, when the Cannibals return (we're introduced to them in Act I). Now we follow a Laotian-American woman who grew up in Minnesota, and is determined to return the ashes of her parents to their homeland. She's dealing with the guilt of being the sole survivor in her family and not being able to save them from the zombies, as well as navigating the dangers of this new land.

young shaman warrior Arun (Hannah Nguyen, photo by Rich Ryan) 
The fantastic 14-person cast includes many actors making their Mu debuts, and some even making their professional acting debuts. Most of them play multiple characters - human, zombie, and otherwise. Often you don't even know who's under the mask, makeup, and costume, but all are believable and impressive in the physical skills. Recent college grad Hannah Nguyen is one of those making her professional debut, and she's an absolute delight as Arun, driving the first half of the story. As believable as the young girl as she is as the shaman warrior, giving off some serious Bella Ramsey in The Last of Us vibes - she's that tough and smart and vulnerable. Leading the second half of the story is Michelle de Joya as Sika, putting all of her physical acting and fighting skills to use, as well as creating a believable portrait of grief. Other highlights in the cast include Olivia Lampert (so wonderful in the title role of CTC's Bina's Six Apples) as Arun's little sister and a lost child Sika protects, Sandy Agustin as Arun's shaman grandmother (and others), Neal Beckman as a kind but awkward French teacher, Payton J. Woodson as Sika's principal and a monk (reprising his role from the original), and the always fantastic Katie Bradley as a sweet schoolteacher and a fierce cannibal.

Katie Bradley kicking some zombies (photo by Rich Ryan)
Mu's Artistic Director Lily Tung Crystal directs the challenging genre-bending piece with a mix of wild fantasy and grounded humanity. There are some weird things like a talking monkey, and a long handshake between two characters that comes out of nowhere related to nothing, but that's part of the wildness of the story. When "kung fu zombie" is in the title, you better deliver, and they do, with some thrilling fight scenes choreographed by Allen Malisci and performed by the ensemble. All of this takes place on the large set in the theater formerly known as Lab, a huge two-story space with brick walls that allows for this large wooden two-level structure, with scenes taking place on top of, under, and in front of it. A key element of the design is the projections, with really beautiful images, almost like watercolor (and sometimes with moving pieces). We see the beautiful Laos countryside, horrible images of destruction, and more projected onto the back brick wall as well as the scrims lowered in sections of the set (set design by Mina Kinukawa, projections design by Miko Simmons).

The Kung Fu Zombies Saga: Shaman Warrior and Cannibals is an epic and ambitious play that covers many genres and themes, closing out Mu's 30th Anniversary season. See it at the Luminary Arts Center in the North Loop through August 13. Parking can be challenging in that area, so I recommend getting there at least a half hour early, or better yet, get there a few hours early and enjoy one of the many local restaurants.