By Pat Launer
A motorcycle trip features prominently in Qui Nguyen’s 2016 play, “Vietgone.”
But an equally expansive journey is taken by the audience — a neck-snapping ride that ranges from ninja to rap, satire to laugh-out-loud comedy to serious drama, winding up awash in poignancy.
In his thoroughly engaging, appealing lovestory-with-a-political-backdrop, Nguyen turns every pre-conceived notion of Vietnamese refugees and Vietnamese Americans on its head. The stereotypes are ridiculed or flipped — so it’s the white Americans struggling to squeak out a few ludicrous utterances in another language, for instance.
We learn a good deal about how many Vietnamese perceive Americans. But more important, how they feel about the war and America’s role in it.
The offbeat tone is established at the outset, when an actor claiming to be the playwright, Qui Nguyen, comes out to assure us that all the characters in his play are fictional — especially his parents, “who this play is definitely not about.”
The action begins in 1975 Saigon, with two separate families torn apart because only some of them can escape to America. Subsequent scenes move back and forth in time and place, across many locales in America, but mostly at a refugee camp in Fort Chaffee, Arkansas.
Some of the refugees want to leave immediately and return to their family. Others want to learn English and assimilate.
All have to come to terms with the reality of what has happened to their country and what is still happening there; how dangerous it would be to return — and most significantly, how they really feel about the American involvement in the war (it might surprise you; it did me).
We meet Quang (hunky Ben Levin, a convincing rapper and sex symbol), self-proclaimed “badass pilot,” who saved a lot of people but had to leave behind his wife and two children. All he wants is to get back to them.
His best friend, Khue (likable Lawrence Kao) is just going along on the back of the cycle for his friend. He’s really getting into the America thing; he especially likes the burritos — because they’re like “fat spring rolls.”
Then there’s Ton (beautiful, sexy, agile Katherine Ko), who doesn’t need help, marriage or a man. She doesn’t believe in love.
Her highly critical, trash-talking mother, Huong (funny and versatile Emy Coligado), just wants Tong to get married — she’s already 30! Mom wants no part of America or English; having already lost two husbands and three children (her youngest son stayed behind with his girlfriend), she just wants to go home. When she meets Quang, she sees him as her ticket out.
When Quang meets Tong, high-voltage sparks fly. The sexual chemistry is palpable (and some of their carnal positions are quite creative).
Tong insists she just likes him for the sex (“to scratch an itch”). She’s put off by the fact that he’s married, but the physical (and emotional) attraction is overpowering.
Still, the whole time, though he clearly (and somewhat guiltily) feels the attraction, Quang is trying to leave, and he takes off on a rusty, rickety bike, heading for Camp Pendleton (with Khue hanging on for dear life), where he thinks he’ll be able to get a plane and fly home.
In the outstanding San Diego Rep production, there are several San Diego connections. Both the director and actor Ko received their MFAs at UC San Diego.
The only local cast member is Shaun Tuazon, who plays five roles — though it seems like more — from the playwright to a Hippie Dude; a Redneck Biker to a shy Arkansas airman. It’s a terrific showcase of malleability and physical flexibility for him, and he gives a funny edge to every character.
Funny is the catchword in Act I which, under the direction of Jesca Prudencio, is often wacky and hilarious. There are near-aerial martial arts and earthbound hand-to-hand combat (kudos to fight choreographer George Yé), peppered with racial and farcical quips.
Only at the end of the second act do things really get serious when, in 2015, the playwright is interviewing his father for dramatic inspiration. The Playwright wants to learn about his father’s eight years fighting in the war, but his Dad (the older Quang) only wants to tell him amusing and embarrassing family stories.
It’s a deeply moving, revelatory interaction, in a play filled with memorable moments. Director Prudencio does an excellent job of handling the pace and tonal shifts, making us laugh and making us care.
The projections (Justin Humphres) are outstanding — from the moving east-to-west scenery on the road trip, to delightfully inventive, cartoonish, hand-drawn-looking images for the refugee camp and the rap songs (a perfect fit for real-life Nguyen’s current gig writing for Marvel Studios).
The costumes (Anastasia Paulova), lighting (Bo Tindell) and sound (Melanie Chen Cole) are imaginative and whimsical.
The triumph of this marvelous play and production is the multi-layered approach to the issues and the characters. It’ll give you a few giggles — and it might even alter your perspective.
- “Vietgone,” runs through Feb. 18 in the Lyceum Space at the San Diego Repertory Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza downtown
- Performances are Wednesday and Sunday at 7 p.m., Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m.; matinees are on Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. Note: There is no Sunday evening performance on the closing day, Feb. 18
- Tickets ($20-$65) are available at 619-544-1000 or sdrep.org. Student tickets are available for all performances at $20
- Running time: 2 ½ hrs.
Pat Launer is a long-time San Diego arts writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her previews and reviews can be found at patlauner.com.