BWW Review: American Stage's Regional Premiere of Qui Nguyen's Quirky, Brilliantly Original VIETGONE
"With VIETGONE, I wanted to address the huge lack of sexually powerful, driven, and complex Asian-American male and female characters on our stages. I wanted to see a sexy Asian male and a sexy Asian female be sexy for something other than being 'exotic.' And I wanted to make something that a young 'yello' kid could see and feel proud of themselves after see it." --playwright Qui Nguyen
"[If] you want to know about Vietnam then I will tell you about Vietnam. If you wanting to know about Vietnamese people, then let me tell you about its people. But if you only wanting to know about war, then go rent a movie. Stick to writing funny plays, son, this stuff too sad for old man like me to recount just to help you write just another war story..." --the playwright's father in VIETGONE
In just two years, we will be celebrating Disney World's 50th Anniversary. I made my first visit to the Magic Kingdom a couple of months after its October 1971 opening. The highlight of the visit, to me, was Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. We waited in a long line, and then, once strapped in our car, journeyed through a maze of falling armor, runaway cars, death by train, and even a visit to hell. It was all over the place, a maze of mishaps, and quite a lot for a nine-year-old to take in. Naturally I loved every minute of it.
I bring up this childhood favorite (that closed over twenty years ago) because Qui Nguyen's crazily creative VIETGONE, in its Regional Premiere currently playing at American Stage until November 3rd, reminded me of the feeling I had zigging and zagging through Mr. Toad's Wild Ride.
Taking place in Vietnam and America in the 1970's, VIETGONE is one hell of a trip through time and place, with several hip-hop numbers thrown in for good measure. And "Let's Get It On," Marvin Gaye's sexualized pop classic, has never been used to better effect; movie fans who like to identify various film allusions will have an especially good time here.
The plot, though Tarantino-ized by its flashback and flash-forward structure, is not hard to follow: A Vietnamese man and woman, separately in America after the fall of Saigon in 1975, meet and fall in love, leading to the creation of...playwright Qui Nguyen. As Jean Luc Godard once said, "A story should have a beginning, middle and end, but not necessarily in that order." That's what makes VIETGONE so amazing--its structure. It's all over the place, and yet we feel like we're on a locomotive that starts, stops, goes backwards, rushes forward, and then gets to our destination...a brilliantly-realized ending. You'll be breathless at its closing, but the show earns its tears in those final moments.
I've been haunted by it ever since seeing it Saturday night.
Some may think, by my brief description, that VIETGONE sounds like a topsy-turvy Miss Saigon meets Hamilton; Kim Tu as done with the theatricality of The Royale. But it's zanier than that sounds. It may read like a movie but is one of the more exuberant theatrical works you will ever see--audio, visuals, set pieces, performances, all add up to something quite rare. And if you're a fan of hip-hop, Qui Nguyen may not be Lin-Manuel Miranda when it comes to word-play, but he's a powerful voice, using every means necessary to tell this tale. His frantic, throw-everything-including-the-kitchen-sink-in-the-mix style really comes together here, because the show has so much heart. You can tell this story is quite dear to him; afterwards, it is dear to us, where we, the audience, become protective of this story, treating it as our own (which is saying something in my case, since I'm a white male born in New Jersey).
The acting is astonishing. The handsome Jeff Kim and the beautiful Sami Ma, as the lovers Quang and Tong, are astounding, and we feel their sexual chemistry and heat. We root for them and, through their struggles, have at least some understanding of the pain and loss that they have endured. "I thought everything would be super-nice in America," one of the characters says. "That's what they advertise." Through the back and forth nature of the show, the bonkers structure, we understand what they mean, what it's like to be thrust into a world far different from their own, their past unknown to anyone but themselves.
Jodi Kimura is outstanding in a number of roles, and in one laugh-out-loud instance even uses a knife and fork as chopsticks. Kenny Tran is equally strong, his energy sparking the stage whenever he enters. Best of all is Vi Tran in a number of roles, including a pot-smoking hippie, a redneck biker (worth admission price in and of itself), and the "playwright."
I have been to thousands of plays in my lifetime, but VIETGONE showed me two things that I have never seen before. The first involves "the playwright" giving the opening American Stage speech (as part of the script); I could hear several people in the audience "ooh" and "ahh" when he introduced himself, thinking Qui Nguyen was actually playing the part. I may have seen variations of this, but none quite so specific.
The second never-seen-it-before instance is when Vi Tran plays an American soldier in Fort Chaffee, attempting to speak Vietnamese. It's one of the funniest, cleverest things I may have experienced. It's something totally new to me onstage--seeing and hearing America the way a refugee actually sees and hears it, to the funniest extreme that it may go--and if you are reading this review and still have not seen the show, then stop reading right now. Please pick up your phone and call American Stage immediately [(727)-823-PLAY] to get tickets, because this in and of itself must be seen. It's what I love about theatre, and it probably couldn't be as successfully accomplished in any other art form. Every time I think of Vi Tran's work as an American soldier here, I just smile at the chutzpah and genius of it.
Okay, if you did make the call for tickets, then welcome back.
Director Brian Balcom keeps the pace moving, the actors always in the moment. This is one joyfully bumpy ride, quite unlike anything you've ever seen before. Jerid Fox's brilliant set is like a psychedelic pop-up book sprung to life, as if Peter Max painted each frame of Hearts and Minds. And the much-needed projections really work here and never feel perfunctory.
All of that said, so much happens in VIETGONE, its structure moving back and forth in time, that it sometimes causes fatigue. And some of the scenes, especially those involving a motorcycle journey across America, have a sameness about them. We sometimes get lost in all the hubbub, but the play's several moments of brilliance shine through, and the audience knows that it is in the presence of a truly inventive and original playwright.
VIETGONE ends on a beautiful note--beautifully quiet amid the previous sturm und drang. It was a note of hope, of reconciliation, and I found it incredibly moving. You could hear a pin drop during it, all of us leaning forward, the audience as one, together in this journey. The wild ride's last instance is a somber one, emotional and touching. VIETGONE earned this moment of solace, a gorgeous ending to one of the most dynamic, quirky plays I have ever experienced.
American Stage's production of VIETGONE runs through November 3rd. Please note that its overt sexual content is for mature audiences.