Regional Reviews: San Diego
Also see Bill's review of The Importance of Being Earnest
Before their meeting, Quang (Ben Levin) and Tong (Katherine Ko) are living very different lives. Following a heroic act, Quang, a South Vietnamese pilot, and his friend Nhan (Lawrence Kao) fly many refugees to the USS Midway during the fall of Saigon. Although Quang is able to live peacefully in America, he hopes to return to Vietnam and reunite with his wife and children. Like Quang and Nhan, Tong (Katherine Ko) and her mother Huong (Emy Coligado) find themselves leaving their home in Southeast Asia. They end up in an Arkansas refugee camp, where Tong is eager to start a new life. Act one builds up to Qui's (Shaun Tuazon) parents' first conversation and meeting, and act two is about the complicated aftermath that follows.
Nguyen's profane and hilarious style of writing is evident from the opening scenes. He starts the evening with cast members breaking the "fourth wall" and follows that up with an original rap song that introduces Quang. Those introductory moments are only a taste of the creative choices he makes throughout the script. His decision to go back and forth in time might not add much to the structure of the theatrical piece, but all his other unique decisions as a storyteller result in a comedy that's refreshing to watch. A lot of his upbeat moments come from the growing relationship between Quang and Tong.
Levin and Ko's chemistry balances steamy attraction with comical wit. While the outcome of Quang and Tong's romance is inevitable, the audience still wants them to end up together despite problems that get in the way of their growing feelings for each other. Playing opposite them are Kao, Tuazon and Coligado in several supporting roles. They each get to show emotional range portraying small comic relief characters, as well as three-dimensional, fleshed-out people.
Complementing Nguyen's prose is Jesca Prudencio's direction, which embraces the fantastical elements of the narrative. Some of the funniest situations that Prudencio stages include a confrontation Quang has with a redneck biker (Tuazon) and a dance-heavy montage set to Bruno Mars' "Versace on the Floor." At the same time, she doesn't downplay intimate moments when the protagonists try to adjust to their experiences in the United States. Crewmembers collaborate with Prudencio in creating images and sound that leave a lasting impact. Justin Humphres' comic book-influenced projections work well with Nguyen's vision, while Bo Tindell's moody lighting and Melanie Chen Cole's contemporary music are used effectively in various rap sequences. When Nguyen's parents express their raw, and angriest, emotions through rhythmic speech, Tindell's visuals and Cole's audio contribute to a concert-like atmosphere in the Lyceum Space.
One of the biggest accomplishments of Nguyen's writing is that he includes the necessary elements of a romantic comedy, while still featuring plenty of social commentary. What else would you expect from a show called Vietgone? His thoughts about the Vietnam War aren't easy to articulate in a review, because characters share different opinions about the topic throughout the entire evening. Nguyen's refusal to be one-sided pays off on multiple occasions. Several discussions about the war lead to a couple of poignant exchanges that should leave many holding back tears.
Surprisingly accessible given the subject matter, Nguyen's Vietgone is a terrifically unconventional ode to family. Nguyen's use of big laughs, imagination and empathy will easily satisfy all kinds of Americans.
San Diego Repertory Theatre presents Vietgone through February 18, 2018. Performs Sundays through Saturdays at 79 Horton Plaza, San Diego CA. Tickets start at $20.00 and can be purchased online at www.sdrep.org or by phone at 1-619-544-1000.