It’s been so long since I’ve been sitting in a physical theater that I can’t remember if the audience usually claps as soon as someone takes the stage to greet them. May be. But I certainly don’t remember such euphoric applause as during the first moment of “Vietgone”. The Geva Theater Center production, originally slated for May 2020, runs through October 24 with several COVID protocols in place (including a mask warrant for the audience).
The production, directed by Pirronne Yousefzadeh, is worth the wait.
The opening âWelcome to Gevaâ comes from playwright Qui Nguyen (played by Hansel Tan), which marks the start of the pre-show announcements. With this rupture of the fourth wall, the show immediately takes on its playful and irreverent tone. The ensemble takes the stage, recognizes the number of whites in the play, and presents the play’s premise: it’s 1975, and the playwright’s parents are refugees from the Vietnam War in America.
This play does not attempt to realistically portray the events. Instead, it’s a loud, silly, rowdy re-imagination, starting with the tongue. In the heightened reality of ‘Vietgone’, Vietnamese immigrants speak like the playwright likes to imagine they would – not in Vietnamese or with accents, but in contemporary English presumably similar to how the playwright and his peers. talk.
Fair warning: there are a lot of swear words. While some viewers may complain about excessive profanity, I hope the show finds audiences more amused by sex and swearing than some on Sunday morning seemed to be.
Nguyen’s script explicitly acknowledges that he tries to subvert racist representations of Asians in pop culture. To that end, the play creates its own caricature to capture how incomprehensible and foreign white Americans are to newcomers to the country (an example of a common English phrase: “Cheeseburger, baseball, discrimination”).
“Vietgone” throws a lot of things against a wall and hopes they will stay. There are direct addresses, usually in the form of rap soliloquies. Sequences inspired by comics. Reenactments of American romantic comedies. A kung fu fight with ninjas (delightfully staged by movement / combat / intimacy director Rocio Mendez).
The play certainly can’t – and shouldn’t – do it all. One disappointment, however, was the little attention given to anti-black racism in favor of seeing America as a land of generally superior opportunity. This was particularly a problem due to the frequent use of rap; Nguyen could have been more thoughtful in acknowledging the play’s debt to black Americans.
Overall, the production handles the glorious chaos of the script beautifully. Nguyen (the actual playwright, not the character on stage) is known for his comic book aesthetic, which comes to life here with a digital art backdrop that indicates time and place.
Yousefzadeh knows when to put on the music and lights – such as when audiences need to distract themselves from the awkward half-rhymes of raps – and when to step back and focus on the actor performances, which are a highlight of the production. .
The characters are imperfect – Tong (Geena Quintos) is a self-proclaimed bitch with naive expectations of America, and Quang (Kurt Uy) is cheating on his wife. The actors have enough charisma and charm that you root the characters, even if you don’t agree with their decisions.
The rest of the ensemble (Hansel Tan, Andrew Cristi, Melody Butiu) play a variety of characters. Their versatility is impressive – ranging from clumsy, cartoonish Americans to Vietnamese immigrants facing heartbreaking loss.
All of the eclectic storytelling techniques help tell a story that, at its core, is pretty conventional. As the playwright says at the start, “It’s not a story of war, it’s a story of falling in love.”
The couple don’t meet until the end of Act I, but once they do, the rest of the play follows predictable boy-meets-girl, boy-loser-girl, etc.
As heartwarming as the familiarity of a tight-knit romance can be, it is the love between parents and their children that gives “Vietgone” its emotional weight. I loved watching Tong and his mother, who are mutually reluctant to be stuck with each other in America, adjust to their new life together.
In particular, the play’s framing device – playwright Nguyen appearing as a character on stage – portrays a son trying to understand and respect his father’s perspective on the Vietnam War. The final scene elevates what would otherwise be an entertaining romantic comedy into a beautiful story about love between father and son.
No play can speak for an entire culture, and there needs to be more shows on the American scene about Vietnam from a Vietnamese perspective – especially to thwart the white savior’s narrative of the somewhat still popular musical. ” Miss Saigon “. âVietgoneâ is an entertaining and well-crafted contribution to this canon, and Geva’s production is a warm welcome to rediscover the joys of the theater in person.
The Geva Theater Center presents “Vietgone” October 5-10, 12-17 and 19-24 at Geva’s Wilson Stage, 75 Woodbury Blvd. (585) 232-4382. $ 25 to $ 64. For more information (including timetables) and tickets, visit gevatheatre.org/vietgone.
Katherine Varga is a freelance writer for CITY. Comments on this article can be directed to Daniel J. Kushner, CITY Arts Editor, at [email protected]