The most successful theatre productions are often those that are mounted with an enthusiasm and passion like Writers Theatre has for Qui Nguyen's play, "Vietgone", and its ongoing collaboration with director Lavina Jadhwani.
The elaborate staging of this play in Writers Theatre's state-of-the-art facility springs from its mission to taking a bold approach to contemporary theatre and creating an intimate theatrical experience. It should also be noted that "Vietgone" features Asian American artists as playwright, director, cast members, and a significant portion of the creative team.
This epic tale is filtered through playwright Nguyen's unique mindset, which was shaped by rap and contemporary music, a love of film and knowledge of pop culture, and his upbringing by immigrant parents. In this highly praised hip-hop-infused play, the playwright utilizes a wildly creative, irreverent style to reshape history and culture into a funny, energetic fantasia. It is equal parts road-trip adventure, buddy film, romantic comedy and Hamilton-esque rap musical. The playwright has even written himself into the story and appears both as narrator and as inquisitive son.
“Vietgone” explores the turbulent time during and following the the fall of Saigon in 1975 as told through the eyes of two Vietnamese refugees who may or may not be the playwright's parents. Quang (Matthew C. Yee) is an American-trained helicopter pilot serving his country in the battle against communist forces. Tong (Aurora Adachi-Winter) is a Vietnamese woman who has an opportunity to seek refuge in America. She leaves behind her younger brother; he leaves behind his wife and children. They meet in a refugee camp at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, and end up together despite themselves and their extraordinary circumstances.
Three additional cast members (Rammel Chan, Emjoy Gavino, Ian Michael Minh) effectively portray more than a dozen other characters. Chan plays Quang's best buddy and Tong's younger brother; Gavino gives a bravely comic performance as Tong's mother; Minh appears as the playwright, a redneck biker and a hippie dude. And ninjas!
Director Jadhwani and her top notch design team expedite this epic, episodic story on an empty thrust stage with an assortment of wheeled set pieces (Scenic Designer Yu Shibagaki), spectacular film projections (Projections Designer Rasean Davonte Johnson), a lush musical score (Original Music & Music Direction by Gabriel Ruiz), an atmospheric soundscape (Sound Designer Kevin O'Donnell), evocative costumes (Costume Designer Melissa Ng), a masterful light plot (Sarah Hughey), and effective fight choreography (Choreographer Tommy Rapley).
Despite its serious subject matter, this production mines every comic possibility. Nguyen provides a hilarious ending to Act I. Especially effective is an action sequence set to the 1974 hit “Come and Get Your Love” which brilliantly advances the story, passes time, provokes laughter and pays tribute to classic films.
The playwright's thesis seems to be that, despite the impetus for or outcome of war, those individuals personally affected deserve all our understanding and compassion. They suffer unimaginable loss--of family, friends, livelihood, home, or homeland. However, the playwright generously allows the character of Quang (who may or may not represent his father) to have the last word. His very personal, painful experience gives him a different perspective than that in any history book.
This timely play offers a singular view of the immigrant experience. Although its entertaining style is arguably more memorable than its dense, complicated story, "Vietgone" is nevertheless a grand experiment in theatricalism.
• Richard Pahl has worked as an actor and director for more than 40 years. While serving two terms on Elgin's Cultural Arts Commission, he produced its Page To Stage play reading series. He recently directed "Spinning Into Butter" for Janus Theatre, "Making God Laugh" and a staged reading of "Peggy's Birth Day" at Steel Beam Theatre. He is slated to direct “Over the River and Through the Woods” for ETC early next year.