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Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

American Conservatory Theater
Review by Patrick Thomas | Season Schedule

Also see Patrick's reviews of Transitions, Bamboozled and Jeanie's reviews of The Realistic Joneses and Dead Man's Cell Phone

Cindy Im, James Seol, and Jenelle Chu
Photo by Kevin Berne
One of the most beautiful things theatre can do is open a window onto the experience and emotions of others. When actors—live on stage, breathing the same air as we sitting there in the dark—step skillfully into the skin of another (especially a character created by a writer as talented as Qui Nguyen), theatre can get your empathy engine revving as no other art form.

Nguyen's Vietgone, currently being presented at American Conservatory Theater's Strand Theater, does just that, by revealing the humanity we share via an experience (a homefront war followed by exodus and time in a refugee camp) very few members of the American theatergoing public have had. Because, despite the vast differences in language, culture and tradition, Nguyen oh-so-cleverly finds a way for those of us who didn't live through the Vietnam War to experience a range of oh-so-human desires: for a better life, peace, stability, and for love in all its forms—romantic, sexual, parental, and platonic.

Nguyen's story crosses decades, from the last weeks of the war to 2015, but most of it takes place during the weeks leading up to the fall of Saigon and a few months after. Quang (a passionate performance from James Seol) is a helicopter pilot in the South Vietnamese Air Force, aching to see his children, from whom his military service has separated him. His wife makes the journey alone to express her fear that the Vietcong are too close to Saigon. With tragically mistimed bravado, Quang dismisses her fears, but promises that if the VC are ever on the verge of taking the city, he will whisk the family to safety in his chopper, a promise phrased with such surety that we know it is destined to be broken. Some weeks later, Quang—along with his buddy from home, Nhan (Stephen Hu), who escaped with him—is in a refugee camp in Arkansas, immediately hatching a plan to return home and rescue his family. Quang has more than a bit of South Pacific's Luther Billis in him. He obtains, at no cost, a motorcycle. When he learns of a flight heading to Guam from San Diego, he and Nhan hop aboard the 125cc Yamaha and quit Arkansas for the coast.

This journey serves as the spine on which Nguyen hangs his story, moving forward and backward in time, between Vietnam, the camp at Fort Chaffee in Arkansas, and various stops on the road with Quang and Nhan. Along the way we meet Tong (Jenelle Chu), who escaped with her mother (Cindy Im, who also plays five other roles, but seems to relish this one above the rest), both at the refugee camp, where she will ultimately meet Quang, and in Vietnam, where she is unsuccessful in convincing her boyfriend Giai that she doesn't want to marry him.

Nguyen has created a marvelous set of characters, fully dimensional, with clearly defined desires and a delightful mix of broadly shared and individual to just them. They feel genuine, which makes it almost impossible not to be interested in their intertwining stories, which resolve with such bittersweet beauty.

Another reason I believe they are so easy to relate to, despite the apparent gulf of differences of geography, language and culture, is the conceit Nguyen has contrived within Vietgone: Vietnamese characters speak in a contemporary urban/youthful English vernacular ("Yo, bro, you know you my homey."), while American characters are indicated by speaking nonsense, heavy with clich├ęs of America ("Yee-haw! Git 'er done!" "Cheeseburger yellow banana ventriloquist."). In doing so, Nguyen is able to reveal the veracity and humanity of his characters (the story is an adaptation of his parents' experiences) in a way that allows a Western, relatively privileged audience to identify and empathize with them. When that theatrical empathy happens, it's beautiful.

It happens here because every element of Vietgone is expertly and powerfully realized. The songs—did I mention this was a musical?—are mostly based in the hip-hop tradition, and move the story forward and reveal character through some clever (and some less so) rhymes, often expressing deep emotion.

The sets (by Brian Sidney Bembridge) are detailed enough to serve the story and clearly establish place, but simple enough not to pull focus from the characters inhabiting them. And there are moments near the end of both acts that elicit some of the most powerful reactions that are achieved solely through Chris Lundahl's stunning projections and Jesse Amoroso's costumes, under the guidance of director Jaime Castañeda.

There is much I have left out that would, I hope, convince you to see Vietgone: the many hysterical lines Nguyen gives his characters; probably the best (and by far the funniest) stage fight scene I've ever seen; and a clever, if slightly silly, tribute to love scenes from movies as varied as Ghost, Dirty Dancing and Fifty Shades of Grey. But reading all that would require time that you should be spending at the Strand Theater seeing this funny, touching, and very human work of theatrical art.

Vietgone, through April 22, 2018, at ACT's Strand Theater, 1127 Market Street, San Francisco CA. Tickets range from $40-$95, and are available at

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