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Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

The Kung Fu Zombies Saga: Shaman Warrior & CannibalsTheater Mu
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of Godspell, Shane and Ruthless!

Soudavone Khamvongsa and Michelle de Joya
Photo by Rich Ryan
Think fast–who would a couple of Laotian shaman warriors have an easier time dispatching in a brawl: a zombie horde or a pack of flesh-eating cannibals? You can see how the shaman warriors fare against both sets of foes in a spectacular show called The Kung Fu Zombies Saga: Shaman Warrior & Cannibals, a Theater Mu world premiere production now raging at the Luminary Arts Center. If this sounds like a wild and wacky festival of campy and frenetic martial arts face-offs, you are partly correct. The play, by Mellon Foundation Playwright in Residence Saymoukda Duangphouxay Vongsay, is that, but it is far more. It is also an exploration of the overlapping realms of traditional beliefs and values with the modern (read "Western") world, a story of female empowerment, a portrait of family devotion, and a cautionary tale about impending environmental chaos.

That is a lot to chew on, and director Lily Tung Crystal manages to serve the entire banquet of ideas and images in digestible portions that make for a satisfying–if sometimes bewildering–meal. The play–which is indeed a saga, running close to three hours (with an intermission)–had begun the journey to its current form in 2013, when Theater Mu staged

Kung Fu Zombies vs Cannibals, Duangphouxay Vongsay's first play. The expanded work tells two stories that come together in an unexpected and fully satisfying finish.

The first half of the saga is set in the Laotian heartland home to heroic figures Mae Thao, an elder Shaman, Arun, who is May Thao's granddaughter and protégée, and the Monkey King, a demigod who comes to Arun's aid. Their challenge to protect their people is linked to the remnants of the "Secret War" conducted by the United States from 1964 to 1971 in tandem with the Vietnam War. A massive number of bombs were dropped on Laos, two million tons of ordinance, making Laos, on a per person basis, the most bombed nation in history. About a third of those bombs failed to explode on impact. They have continued to explode, killing or injuring over 50,000 innocent farmers and children in the years since the war. The play posits that the continuing death and destruction caused by the Secret War is linked to the presence of zombies in the land. It is certainly an apt metaphor.

After the intermission, the second part of the saga opens in Minneapolis, where the unlikely hero Sika, a sullen high school student, is her family's lone survivor of an attack by Zombie hordes unearthed by the heat of solar storms. Again, what would be a better metaphor for the infestation of climate change? Sika is determined to keep a promise made to her parents to return their ashes to their native land, which shifts the narrative back to Laos. The two tales are craftily woven together by a common nemesis, Mara. Mara is a Laotian of royal lineage, educated in the west, who returns to Laos as the new teacher at Arun's school in her remote village. Mara seems unhinged by the crossfire between acquisitive western mores, an inherited sense of entitlement, and the traditional values and practices of the Lao people. In drawing the two narratives together, we become aware of an indissoluble bond between the world of the ancestors and a new life amid homogenized modernity.

Even if you are not persuaded that the play is about much more than fist-pumping martial arts, the martial arts scenes are so amazingly executed that they would be reason enough to get tickets to The Kung Fu Zombies Saga: Shaman Warrior & Cannibals. The work of the ensemble, guided by fight choreographer Allen Malicsi and assistant fight choreographer Laura Anderson, is akin to ballet. The precision with which it is performed and the illusion of actual mayhem in what must surely be very controlled movements is astonishing–and, I dare say, immensely entertaining. I lost track of the number of such sequences, but there are too many.

The cast is a mix of veteran actors and some making their acting debuts, chosen for their martial arts acumen. They all perform wonderfully, melding into a consistently tight ensemble. Katie Bradley, as Mara, is crucial to both acts. She is phenomenal, showing Mara's descent ever-deeper into a moral abyss, and quite impressive in her fight scenes. Hannah Nguyen is compelling as Arun, a young girl just discovering her mystical powers, desperate to use them to fend off the evil in her land. Sandy Agustin is persuasive as Mae Thao, Arun's grandmother, with the calming perspective of age that allows her to rise above the trouble afoot.

Michelle de Joya is striking in Act 1 as Moy, a girl who pays dearly for succumbing to desire, but it is in the second act, as heroic Sika, that she is truly phenomenal, conveying determination and strength as well as compassion and affection. She is also amazing in the martial arts. Soudavone Khamvongsa is convincing as Arun's mother in Act 1 and persuasive as an orphan who forges a strong bond with Sika in Act 2. Norm Muñoz is wonderful as the Monkey King. He embellishes the role with such wry humor, and scurries about with such athleticism, that it was no surprise to learn he has worked as a clown, as well as actor, dancer and choreographer. In Act 2, he is winning as a monk at a Laotian temple, living with another monk played with great zest by Payton J. Woodson. Woodson also has a great scene as Sika's high school principal and, incidentally, is the only cast member who appeared in the 2013 Kung Fu Zombies vs Cannibals.

The lovely setting designed by Mina Kinukawa offers a delicate array of ladders, platforms, landings and bridges, which serve to convey the mountainous terrain of Laos, greatly enhanced and articulated by Miko Simmons' well-conceived projections. Mariko De Montalte has created apt costumes, with singular detail given to traditional garb worn by the ancient Shaman, Mae Thao. Karin Olson has done a masterful job of lighting design, bringing each scene to life in its own requisite way. Akiem Scott's sound works well, and his musical compositions greatly enhance the work.

Lily Tung Crystal must have worked like a wildly spinning dervish to direct this show with all of its elements, and her efforts have yielded great success. Her staging of Saymoukda Duangphouxay Vongsay's lengthy and intricate text keeps the audience in its grip, celebrating the play's dizzying action and drawing out its embedded messages, without one overwhelming the other. The magnitude of this undertaking is impressive. The Kung Fu Zombies Saga: Shaman Warrior & Cannibals is both great fun and deeply affecting. Either is reason enough to see it. Combined, it climbs to the top of the list.

The Kung Fu Zombies Saga: Shaman Warrior & Cannibals runs through August 13, 2023, by Theater Mu at the Luminary Arts Center, 700 North First Street, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: Pay as You Are, $10 to $60, suggested market value is $45. For tickets and information, please visit or call 651-789-1012.

Playwright: Saymoukda Duangphouxay Vongsay; Director: Lily Tung Crystal; Associate Director: KT Shorb; Scenic Design: Mina Kinukawa; Costume Design: Mariko De Montalte; Lighting Design: Karin Olson; Projection Design: Miko Simmons; Sound Design:/Composer: Akiem Scott; Properties Design: Ursula K. Bowden; Fight Choreographer: Allen Malicsi; Assistant Fight Choreographer: Laura Anderson; Intimacy Coordinator: Sophie Peyton; Dramaturg: C."Meaks" Meaker; Cultural Consultant: Saengmany Ratsabout; Technical Director: Austin Stiers; Production Manager: Jay Claire; Stage Manager: Kenji Shoemaker; Assistant Stage Manager: Miranda Shunkwiler.

Cast: Sandy Agustin (Mae Thao/Old Woman), Neal Beckman (Latimer/Haunting Voice/ensemble), Katie Bradley (Mara), Michelle de Joya (Noy/Sika/ensemble), Soudavone Khamvongsa (Saeng/Arahan/ ensemble), Song Kim (Louang Khao/Man/Old Man/Commander Phuc/ensemble), Olivia Lampert (Khwan/Girl/Sika's Sister/ensemble), Kobe Markworth (Tree Demon/Soldier/ensemble), Houa Moua (Villager/ensemble), Norm Muñoz (Mohn/Hanuman/Slim/ensemble), Hannah Nguyen (Arun/Deanna/ensemble), Alyssa Taiber (Mountain Demon/Villager/Zombie Carrie/ensemble), Payton J. Woodson (Loc/Principal Butcher), Chufue Yang (Ghost/Villager).