Vietgone

San Francisco, CA
at the American Conservatory Theater, Strand Theater
Extended through April 29, 2018

Vietgone

Vietgone Web Banner from the ACT site

by Qui Nguyen
directed by Jaime Castañeda

ACT advertising Vietgone as “The irreverent road-trip comedy” is almost sacrilegious. The categorization misses the depth, power, and cultural importance of this newish play.

Anyone selling Vietgone as a mindless-sounding comedy rode the momentary surface story, ignoring the characters, context, and important human issue that makes Vietgone truly memorable. The strength of Vietgone is its suburb writing which hits the mark in storytelling, characterization, pace, and perspective.

The playwright character (Jomar Tagatac) comes on stage in the opening scene to assure the audience that this show is not about his parents. Then we watch his mother and father flee Vietnam at the fall of Saigon, meet in a refugee camp, and adapt in their own, very different ways.

The excellence of Vietgone is how we learn about the people. Writing too much about the surface narrative would be as bad as passing the play off a “road-trip comedy” in an ad. But, let’s explain the “road trip”.

We meet the hero Quang (James Seol) in Saigon where he is a pilot for the South Vietnamese army. Quang and his sidekick, named only “Asian Guy” (Stephen Hu), fly a helicopter load of desperate people onto an American aircraft carrier as Saigon falls. Quang and Asian Guy think they will return to the mainland to find and evacuate Quang’s wife and children in a quick, follow-on rescue flight. That rescue doesn’t happen, and the men wind up being transported on the carrier to America and being sent to a refugee camp in Arkansas. Once there, Quang meets Tong (Jenelle Chu) and Tong’s mother (Cindy Im). There’s chemistry between Quang and Tong, but he is focused on the family he left behind. After some time Quang and the Asian Guy set out on a motorcycle for Camp Pendleton in California so that Quang can demand to be transported back to Vietnam and reunited with his wife and kids.

The play shifts back and forth in time and location a lot. We see Quang and the Asian Guy on the motorcycle heading from Arkansas to California fairly early in the play, and they have scenes which reflect on their refugee/new to America status. These road-trip moments are revelatory about the characters and about America.  They are important, insightful, and often very comedic.

But, the same categorization is true for all of the scenes, not just the ones on the motorcycle. There are tremendously funny, and simultaneously meaningful, moments at the refugee camp and earlier in Vietnam. Vietgone is not a road trip, it’s a people trip.

It’s particularly a refugee trip, a stranger-in-a-strange-land trip, a trip down Prejudice Lane… and not only from the perspective of our heros being discriminated against, but also letting the Vietnamese characters remember their own prejudices.

There are so many flashes of revelation and memory. The characters’ pain of being cut off from their homeland and having to deal with American Supremacy hit me especially hard because of the LGBT refugees and asylum seekers I know from my church’s Guardian Group. The assumption of the wrongness of the US involvement in Vietnam re-immersed me in my high-school/college moral self righteousness. And, the unconscious homogeneity of white America into the 1970’s was striking to recall… and also made extremely funny when the Vietnamese characters talk among themselves about how Americans all think that they are Chinese because Americans think all Asians are Chinese. The kicker is that the Vietnamese characters admit that back home in Saigon they discriminated against people from China and now everyone they meet thinks that they are Chinese themselves.

I am afraid you need to see the play to understand how funny and human this scenario — and the rest of play — are.

The real-life playwright, Nguyen, reportedly loves rap music and fight scenes. He apparently also loves filthy language. These are all things that I generally don’t want to see or hear. Usually I find them cheap devices to appear young or cool, or ways to fill out the two-hours in the theater. Each of them is on target in Vietgone. They make the storytelling more authentic.

The final scene between the playwright and Quan, the helicopter pilot and NOT the playwright’s father, is a worth a trip to the theater on its own. You need the context of the previous two hours’ “road trip”, but the power of this set-in-the-modern-day coda is extreme. If you are close to my age, your college-age moral superiority will be reeling.

Vietgone the play is a complete 5-star, standing ovation, forcing-you-outside-your-comfort-zone, thinking outside-of-the-box piece of art.

ACT’s production is definitely an excellent theater experience. Unfortunately, the director’s and artistic team’s choices made the afternoon less moving than the version we saw in Ashland in 2016 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Here’s why:

  • Apparently each production develops the musical accompaniment for the rap scenes. At ACT, there is loudish, somewhat melodic music behind the words which distracted from their power. At OSF I don’t remember any music, although I have been assured that it was there. But, in Ashland, the rhythm and cadence of the words ruled, and the scenes were somehow, but definitely, more commanding.
  • All actors except for those playing Quang and Tong have multiple roles and the flawless switching among the identities made the five-person cast seem much larger in Ashland. But, at ACT it doesn’t work so seamlessly. The first multiple character, Jomar Tagatac as the Playwright, has a distinctive beard. That unique-looking fur reappears in all of his roles, forcing us to willingly suspend our disbelief.  If I were the director I would have picked another actor or made Tagatac cut the thing off!
  • One of my favorite scenes is a fight between the good guys (the Vietnamese) and the bad guys (American bikers). When I saw it originally it was beautifully, humorously, outrageously staged in stylized broadness. It was a wonderful moment of family lore made real in front of you. It was just another one-minute scene at ACT. All the parts and lines were there, but it was sped through. ACT really ran over a show stopping moment.
  • The actors at ACT were excellent. I especially liked James Seol’s Quang. But, except for Seol, I felt that the Ashland actors were clearly better. More energetic? More involved? Better looking? (I feel cheap saying this, but, yes. At least in a couple cases.)

Overall, ACT’s casting choices, sound design, and directing don’t let Vietgone be as perfect as it was in Ashland. It’s still very, very well worth seeing. But, ACT’s Vietgone is just excellent and not transformative.

Play rating: Rating: 4 and 1/2 Syntaxes out of 5

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