Saturday, 8 October 2016

VIETGONE by Qui Nguyen at Manhattan Theatre Club

     First of all, what a pleasure it was to see a predominantly young audience at the Manhattan Theatre Club instead of a room filled with seniors like myself. VIETGONE deserves a large, diverse audience. It's a delightful, moving, even challenging evening of theatre. In it Nguyen creates a theatrical extravaganza out of the romance of his parents in an Arkansas refugee camp at the end of the Vietnam War. It's typical of Nguyen's playfulness that at the outset "the playwright" (an actor) greets the audience, reads the usual instructions and announces that the characters we will see are purely fictional. He also demonstrates, with the help of the actors, that the Vietnamese will speak good English while the Americans speak some ridiculous patois, the sort of awful English usually given to stick Asian characters from Charlie Chan on. Five virtuosic actors play all the roles. When the lead characters have to articulate their deepest feelings, they do so in rap numbers. There are comic strip projections and kung fu battles with ninjas. Throughout, Nguyen and his excellent director, May Adrales, and designers, particularly projection designer Jared Mezzocchi, give us a dynamic production that alternates between realism and comic book fantasy.
      All the elements of theater serve a simple love story between two young people suffering the psychic and spiritual wounds of an awful war. Quang (Raymond Lee), was a helicopter pilot for the South Vietnamese military who had to fly out the last refugees and leave his own wife and children behind. His principal desire is to get back to his family. In the Arkansas refugee camp, he meets Tong (Jennifer Ikeda), who wants companionship and sex but no attachment. It takes Quang a long physical and emotional journey to realize he can't go home again.  Throughout, the one thing that enrages Quang is the American point of view toward the Vietnam War -- that it either was criminal or a tragic mistake. Quang never falters in his hatred of the Vietcong and what they did to his people.
     One cannot speak highly enough of the superb cast. Lee and Ikeda demonstrate both the strength and sexiness of their characters, as well as their battle scars. Samantha Quan makes Tong's mother more than a comic stereotype. She also ably plays half a dozen other characters. Jon Hoche and Paco Tolson play all the other Vietnamese and American men, each a distinct character. Together these five artists comprise and excellent ensemble.
     This show deserves a life beyond the intimate Manhattan Theatre Club. Five stars.

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