On Stage: Cultures clash in genre-bending ‘Vietgone’ at the Denver Center
September 4, 2018
"What was that, exactly? I'm not sure. But whatever it was, it was pretty great."
That's what I was thinking late Friday night after seeing "Vietgone" at the Denver Center's Ricketson Theater. It's fair to say that after several decades of watching live theater, I'm not often surprised. But this one, this trip-hop sensation by Vietnamese playwright Qui Nguyen, is something that'll stay with me for a while.
This is the first production of "Vietgone" in Colorado, which premiered in 2016 in Costa Mesa, CA. In this Denver production, director Seema Sueko makes the most of the material by Nguyen, a self-professed comic-book geek. With a crack ensemble cast of just five actors, the play kicks things off with a welcome from the playwright (mega-chipper Jordan De Leon)—complete with no-ringing cellphones admonishment—who then reverse-breaks the fourth wall with the audience and slips seamlessly into the action beginning behind him. The multi-level set is festooned, roadhouse-style, with a variety of signs alluding to the action.
"Vietgone" is as much a guided tour as it is a genre-bending, time-hopping exploration of the lives of two Vietnamese refugees (nominally Nguyen's parents) who meet in America in 1975 as Saigon falls.
Quang (Glenn Morizio) and Tong (Lisa Helmi Johanson) don't particularly like each other when they first meet, but soon decide to have sex anyway to stave off the boredom of life in an Arkansas refugee camp. Quang is torn and desperate over the fact that he had to leave his wife and two young children back in Vietnam. The adultery adds a new level of pain, even as he's coming to terms with the fact that his family won't be able to join him in America and he cannot return to Vietnam.
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Tong has parallel emotions related to a beloved brother left behind, but she copes with it by adopting an icy "who cares?" demeanor and sparring with her libidinous mom (a hilarious Melody Butiu). When Quang comes along, she initially views him as another helpful distraction, nothing more. As romance stories dictate, that changes, but Nguyen has a whole lot more to say about the world at that time—and it's an eye-opener for American audiences used to one narrative about the Vietnam War.
It'd be tempting to say that Nguyen's unorthodox, non-linear plot loses its way at times, but a more charitable reading would be that all that disorder is simply a reflection of the messy lives and times the play depicts. There's an extended fight scene that's wildly funny if not altogether necessary plot-wise. But true to the playwright's comic-book roots, it seems clear it had to be in there to introduce ninjas into the action. (And kudos on the awesome fight direction by Geoffrey Kent.)
More on the mark are the sporadic and spontaneous raps busted out by the various characters as they try to make sense of their topsy-turvy world. These raps function as breakout commentary, where the characters can cast aside any pretense of fitting in and simply tell it like it is. The hip-hop beats are interspersed with snippets of electronica-infused country-western and a few other genres tossed in, making the original music by Shane Rettig an intriguingly perfect complement to the chaotic, culturally mixed world of the play.
Like the free-wheeling motorcycle trips taken by Quang and his best friend (a highly versatile Brian Lee Huynh), "Vietgone" is a wild ride and a great way for the Denver Center Theater Company to kick off its fortieth season. Don't miss it.