The Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre hosts the Canadian premiere production of Qui Nguyen’s Vietgone, directed by his long- time collaborator Robert Ross Parker at Tom Hendry Warehouse Theatre.
Co-founders of New York’s Off-Off-Broadway theatre company Vampire Cowboys, Nguyen and Parker made their first mark on the scene in ‘Geek Theatre’ – a newer genre inspired by the world of sci-fi/fantasy comic books and graphic novels.
Vietgone, however, is far from that (for the most part).
Nguyen was born in Arkansas to Vietnamese parents who were among the more than 100,000 nationals who sought refuge in America from the Vietnam War in 1975. This work, based on his parents’ remembrances, is as much about two people’s struggle through loss and displacement as it is about their tumultuous courtship.
In anticipation of predominantly white, English-speaking audiences, Nguyen presents what would be Vietnamese dialogue as colloquial English. Conversely, dialogue to be understood as English is composed of strings of stereotypical American buzzwords and phrases like ‘yee-haw' and ‘cheeseburger.’ The broken Vietnamese of a young member of the Army National Guard attempting to exercise his language skills at the Fort Chaffee refugee camp is especially side-stitchingly translated.
Beautifully cast, the chemistry between the five players bubbles with organic rhythm and sharp comedic timing.
Friends Quang and Nhan, played by Simu Liu and Jeff Yung respectively, find themselves in a refugee camp in western Arkansas after flying their last mission together out of Vietnam. Liu’s vocabulary is full of dapper confidence and good-guy vulnerability, while Yung’s brotherly support and dissent strikes the best friend/sidekick chord harmoniously.
Stephanie Sy harnesses the matter-of-fact self-assuredness of Tong, a resilient and progressively minded 30 year old who lands in that same camp with her conservative mother, Huong. Brimming with maternal staunchness, Jennifer Villaverde’s performance anchors Huong’s old-world resistance in an undercurrent of feminine sensuality.
Peter Fernandes tackles a spectrum of comic roles with admirable fluency. Among the myriad; Tong’s sensitive suitors, the tantrum-throwing rich boy Giai in Vietnam and the nearly bilingual oafish serviceman Bobby in Arkansas thrive in Fernandes’ interpretations.
Set designer Joanna Yu’s framed corrugated panels were simple, versatile and efficient – an elegant reference to the tin-walled leaf hut in which Tong’s family had lived before fleeing Vietnam.
Serving as screens for a variety of projected backgrounds, smaller panels on movable tracks adds interactive dimension to the stage. They are especially charming in a ’70s sitcom-style hide-and-seek montage. Another action highlight includes the sights and sounds of a stock 16-bit sparring game in tandem with Jacqueline Loewen’s appropriately choppy fight choreography – complete with ninja ambushes, backflips and throwing stars.
In lieu of reflective monologues, Nguyen and Parker opted for a smattering of rapped dramatic interjections complete with hip-hop choreography. Though the colloquialization of dialogue is effective, these episodes feel like an awkward cross-cultural time-warp in this context.
Vietgone, as a whole, finds its balance in humour and sincerity. What is most striking is the departure from the typical American narrative of the Vietnam War. From the prelude to the postlude, Nguyen offers the perspective of Vietnamese nationals saving themselves and their families from war, destruction and the perspective of his parents escaping the Viet Cong, grateful for the opportunity to rebuild, grow and fall in love.