By Barry Reszel
Theatre patrons looking to their art of choice for enlightenment about messy issues in a world of ever-escalating complexity have a new staging of Playwright Qui Nguyen‘s Vietgone to offer just that.
Scattered with rap music and some 70s soundtracks and employing an achronological, convoluted storytelling style, Vietgone‘s most notable takeaway is its message that, to the South Vietnamese, America’s involvement in the Vietnam War was heroic and appreciated.
That’s baked into the courtship story of the playwright’s parents, two very new Americans, set in the mid-1970s. Saigon has fallen. Quang, a south Vietnamese, American-trained pilot is forced to leave his wife and two children and begrudgingly becomes an American refugee. Tong escapes to America with her curmudgeonly mother. This is the story of their fleeing then meeting and falling in love, such as they define it, in the unlikely setting of Ft. Chaffee, Ark.
It’s a “love story” with tremendous obstacles, not the least of which is Quang’s obsession with finding some way back to his native land and the family he both loves and feels responsible for. That’s the premise dividing most of the action between the refugee camp where the couple meets and Quang’s motorcycle road trip with his hometown buddy who, in one of the play’s most poignant scenes, finally convinces Quang that there’s nothing and no one to go home to.
A second chief obstacle to the storytelling is the overall unlikeability of the female protagonist. Yes, it’s a mask to her insecurity. Of course it’s a window to her reality of a young woman in a foreign world. But not unlike the scene in which Tong says, “I don’t give a shit,” minimally 50 times, her ultimate acquiescence to love doesn’t convince the audience any more than she convinces herself that she doesn’t care.
In fact, Vietgone‘s proliferation of profanity permits proper pondering of Nguyen’s overall writing. Well-placed obscenity is that which comes from an artist’s palette. This playwright uses a Wagner power painter.
This observation from one reviewer takes nothing from his pedigree. In New York, Nguyen co-founded the Obie Award-winning troupe Vampire Cowboys, whose sci-fi/action-movie combos written and choreographed by Nguyen have performed to sold-out audiences at the New York International Fringe Festival and published nationally in Plays and Playwrights. His Fight Girl Battle World, She Kills Monsters and Soul Samurai have all been staged in Chicagoland. More information about the author may be read here. Vietgone was first produced in 2015 and picked up a couple “new play” honors the following year.
Director Lavina Jadhwani‘s current production at Glencoe’s Writers Theatre is exceptionally well-performed by Matthew C. Yee as Quang and Aurora Adachi-Winter as Tong. They are supported by and extraordinarily talented ensemble trio, each of whom takes on multiple roles: Rammel Chan, Emjoy Gavino and Ian Michael Minh. And to be sure, Writers Theatre’s always-stellar technical elements are just that.
Unfortunately, to this observer, Vietgone (barely a musical) parks itself squarely in the middle of the dramady category but provides too little amusement (though the tweaking of U.S. Asian stereotypes is noted) and not enough dramatic take away.
A love story or a war story, much less a story that purports to be both, must leave its audiences more affected. Instead, the car ride home’s most interesting discussion might just be whether the last scene between father and son should have been the play’s opening.
Writers Theatre presents “Vietgone” through September 29 at 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe. More information and tickets are available here. Photos by Michael Brosilow.