If theatre is supposed to push boundaries in its exploration of how to tell a story, then VIETGONE by Qui Nguyen at the San Diego Repertory delights in using creative outlets to tell this sassy and sexy refuge story. From rapping, time jumps, swinging between sarcasm and sentimentality, a lot of profanity, humor, and the occasional ninja battle, this entertaining show runs the gamut. What else except creativity can you expect from a playwright (and screenwriter for Marvel Studios) who co-founded a theatre company called Vampire Cowboys Theatre? Your traditional theatrical expectations need not apply when seeing this show.
This is the story of Vietnamese immigrants Tong (Katherine Ko) and Quang (Ben Levin) after the fall of Saigon, who just happen to be the playwrights parents. Playing against the typical stereotypes of Vietnamese immigrants, as the character of the playwright (Shaun Tauzon) tell the audience at the top of the show, while the show is set in 1975 this may not look or sound like we expect it to. This is a show with serious topics of war, assimilation, and immigration as told through sex, drugs, and rap monologues.
Tong is a headstrong, sexually aggressive, unconventional, and single 30 year old woman who works at the US Embassy in Saigon. Her age and unmarried status are constantly pointed out by her mother Huong (Emy Coligado), but when Saigon falls she and her mother escape to a refugee camp in Fort Chafee, Arkansas.
Quang, a pilot, and his best friend Nhan (Lawrence Kao) are both in the military fighting for the south when Saigon falls. As they take a helicopter of people to safety on the Midway, Quang finds that he is unable to return to get his wife and kids and that he and Nhan are now both headed for the same refugee camp as Tong and her Mother.
Tong and Quang strike up a romance as they each try to grapple with how to find a new life now that their old lives are gone. Tong is determined to remain independent and not tied down to anyone, while Quang is determined to get back to Vietnam to get this family. He convinces Nhan to go on a cross country trip to get to Camp Pendleton so he can try to get back to Vietnam.
Another flip to the traditional immigration script is that the heavy stereotypical accents and language difficulties don’t belong to the main characters but gleefully makes the American majority the stereotype as they seem to speak only in gibberish like “Yee-haw! Cheeseburger, waffle, cholesterol!” to the confusion of Tong and Quang.
Ko and Levin make the chemistry and the emotional bond that develops between their characters, and their reluctance to speak those feelings lest they make them real, feel genuine. The rest of the characters are provided by the versatile supporting cast of Tauzon, Coligado, and Kao as they do quick changes and play over a dozen other characters between them.
With an expansive cast of characters and events from relatives left in Vietnam, hippies, an American soldier, time shifts, and those aforementioned ninjas, there is a lot going on here. It can at times feel a bit like an “everything but the kitchen sink” kind of sprawling plot and tone (exactly the same problem Marvel movies tend to have come to think of it….). While the rap is a nice additional unconventional touch, it doesn’t always illuminate inner thoughts so much as repeat what dialogue has already explained.
A touch of editing would help to keep the creativity but make it a bit more streamlined as it tries to balance in a tug of war between the comic book aesthetic and realism. Some of the strongest scenes are the more realistic ones where Tong has a nightmare about the destruction in Vietnam, or the final scene between the playwright character and his father.
Directed by Jesca Prudencio, this is a highly physical, energetic production (even without the ninja component). With excellent lighting design by Bo Tindell, and graphic novel inspired scenic/projection design by Justin Humphres, they reinforce the youthful and comic book inspired energy of the show.
With the ideas of immigration and refugees still being debated today, VIETGONE allows the audience a rare perspective of this experience, with humor, compassion, and yes, ninjas.
VIETGONE is playing through February 18th at the San Diego Repertory Theatre. For show time and ticket information go to www.sdrep.org