Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Vietgone has been brought back to the Twin Cities by the Guthrie Theater in a lavish and successful production. Vietgone first arrived here in spring of 2017 at Mixed Blood Theatre, who scored a coup by getting rights to stage the play's first regional production on the heels of a successful New York (Off-Broadway) run. That was an excellent production, albeit it on a smaller scale. The far larger space on the Guthrie's Wurtele Thrust Stage and its peerless technical capacity allow this production to expand upon the energy and emotions wrapped around playwright Nguyen's laugh lines. Through the laughs, the play also reopens issues about the morality of the war and the little explored question (at least on American stages) of what the war meant to the Vietnamese people fighting in it, rather, as most of our Vietnam era films and plays have done, on the experience of Americans in the war.
Vietgone establishes two primary characters early on, Quang and Tong. Quang is a South Vietnamese Air Force helicopter pilot, who trained for his job in Texas. Once the North Vietnamese enter Saigon and the American war effort fizzles, Quang intends to gather his wife and two young children and seek refuge with the Americans. Things go awry and Quang must leave his family behind. Though his co-pilot and best friend Nhan is with him, Quang is bereft. He vows to return to Vietnam as soon as possible to retrieve his family.
Tong has sufficient English proficiency to have worked at the American embassy and thus will be marked as a traitor by the Communist victors. Her boss secures two tickets for her to depart with the Americans. Tong wants to take her younger brother with her, but he will not leave his girlfriend behind, so he convinces their overbearing mother, Huong, to go to America with Tong. Tong scoffs at her brother's devotion to his girlfriend. She has been burned by love and adopted a belief that romantic love is an illusion, that there is no such thing as "the right man" for her or for anyone else, and that casual sex is a great way to pass the time in lieu of a meaningful relationship. Tong, her mother, Quang and Nhan are delivered to a resettlement camp at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, one of four quickly set up to house the Vietnamese refugees.
As a romantic comedy, the play is about Quang, grieving the separation from his wife and children, and Tong, jaded and horny, meeting and finding they have more in common than either of them expected. The road trip strand covers Quang's journey with Nhan by motorcycle from Arkansas to California. From there, they plan to go to Guam and then back to Vietnam, where Quang will try to reunite with his family. Along the way they encounter rednecks, hippies (remember, it's 1975), their first burritos, and the stunning landscapes of the American west.
At regular intervals, the action stops for rap songs that reenforce the turmoil racing through Quang and Tong. Vietgone is not a musical, with songs integrated into the storyline, but the use of these musical interludes–each with an infectious melody and cleverly devised lyrics by Shane Rettig–reveals feelings of hurt, longing and defiance these characters struggle to express.
Nguyen gives his play a unique and spirited twist by scrubbing away the typical depiction of recently arrived refugees as "others," speaking in badly broken English in a shy demeanor and making social faux pas. Instead, the Vietnamese characters speak with the cadence of lifelong Americans. As for the Americans, their speech comprises random words strung together without logic, or, at best, having a theme of sorts but woefully disordered. This is quite comical while illustrating how new arrivals to our shores perceive us.
Emjoy Gavino scores as Tong, conveying her cynical view on life with quick wit and complete candor, whether with the mother who harps at her for reaching the age of thirty without any babies, or the hot war refugee who crosses her path at their camp. Gavino allows us to see Tong's inner self beginning to desire something more than this, despite her constant denials. Hyunmin Rhee is excellent as Quang, strutting with self-confidence while allowing himself to feel the pain of his losses. The play slights the character by allowing him too easily to set aside his steadfast devotion to his wife for the unmoored pleasure Tong offers him. This is not to fault Rhee, who does the best he can to make the abrupt sea change feel authentic. Both actors, Gavino and especially Rhee, really nail the delivery of their rap performances.
Eric Sharp does terrific work as Quang's best friend Nhan, mining nuggets of comedy from the character's frustrated libido and his appetite for all things American, while also conveying his solid devotion to his friend. Sharp is also spot on as Tong's brother Khue. Rebecca Hirota plays Huong, Khue and Tong's mother, who finds herself in a strange new world not at all to her liking. Her sharp tongue and a tendency toward vanity protect her from the forces assaulting her life. The character is, through most of the play, a comic figure and Hirota plays to the trope of the overbearing Asian mother, though when she finally confronts Tong with what it means to be a strong woman, she draws out a well of empathy for her struggling daughter and reveals her humanity. Viet Vo plays a number of roles, most often the American military officer in love with Tong, painting this character as a pathetic buffoon, or at least seen that way by the Vietnamese he tries so hard to befriend.
The set, designed by Lex Lian, uses an abstract screen that, to my eye, seems to be made of leaves from the jungles of Vietnam, woven together in a tight filigree. A series of projections on the screen, the work of Nicholas Hussong, provides details for various locations and brilliantly creates the helicopter full of refugees fleeing Saigon, piloted to safety by Quang. Behind the screen, a collage of American road signs–Bob's Big Boy, Coca-Cola, Campbell's Tomato Soup, Gulf Oil and more–form the commercialized, trivialized landscape of the nation that is giving shelter to refugees from the storm of war. A platform on either side of the stage, and pieces that roll in and out–a camp bunk bed, a cafeteria table, a fuel pump (of vintage age), and such–ground each scene in its specificity.
Masha Tsimring's lighting design is especially evocative, most especially during the rap-performance segments, as well as a hilariously staged fight scene complete with ninjas (yes!)–kudos to fight choreographer Aaron Preusse. Enver Chakartash's costumes are appropriate for the time, place, and station of the characters, and sound designer Mikhail Fiksel creates soundscapes that are well matches for to each setting. Vietgone is a complicated, multi-faceted show, and director Morita has drawn together the many elements into a coherent, entertaining, playful and thought-provoking work.
Without disclosing too much, the final scene is an unexpected departure from everything that comes before. It explains, to a degree, the shifting gears of a narrative that is sometimes completely naturalistic and at other times ventures into fantasy–that ninja scene, for instance, and a series of quick cuts with the refugees cutting up in English class–and puts everything we have seen into a new perspective. As performed by Hyunmin Rhee and Viet Vo, this final scene gives the play a sense of purpose and brings ballast to the lightness that preceded it.
Vietgone is well worth seeing for its value as an entertainment, as well as its unique slant on the experience of Vietnamese War refugees in the United States, and on the meaning of the war itself. The Guthrie's slick production gives the play every opportunity to shine.
Vietgone runs through October 16, 2022, at Guthrie Theater, Wurtele Thrust Stage, 618 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis MN. Tickets are $31.00 to $79.00. Seniors (65+), college students (with ID) - $3.00 - $6.00 off per ticket. Public rush line for unsold seats 15 - 30 minutes before performance, up to four tickets: $20.00 on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Sunday evenings; $25.00 on weekend matinees, Friday and Saturday evenings. For tickets and information, please call 612-377-2224 or visit GuthrieTheater.org.
Playwright: Qui Nguyen; Original Music: Shane Rettig; Director: Mina Morita; Scenic Design: Lex Liang; Costume Design: Enver Chakartash; Lighting Design: Masha Tsimring Sound Design/Composer: Mikhail Fiksel; Projection Design: Nicholas Hussong; Movement Director: Darrius Strong; Fight Director: Aaron Preusse; Dramaturg: Anna J. Crace; Voice Coach: Keely Wolter; Intimacy Coach: Alessandra Bongiardina; Rap Consultant: Oscar Pagnaroth Un; Cultural Consultant: Anh Thu T. Pham; Resident Casting: Jennifer Liestman; NYC Casting Consultant: McCorkle Casting, Ltd.; Stage Manager: Lori Lundquist; Assistant Stage Manager: Katherine Sam Houkom; Assistant Director: Emma Y. Lai
Cast: Emjoy Gavino (Tong/ensemble), Rebecca Hirota (Thu/Huong/ensemble), Hyunmin Rhee (Quang), Eric Sharp (Nhan/Khue/ensemble), Viet Vo (Playwright/Bobby/Giai/ensemble).