Photo courtesy of TheatreSquared
At its beating, lively heart, “Vietgone” is a very conventional tale. A boy and a girl meet in a strange place and sparks fly immediately. The path they take toward finding themselves and finding love is fraught with twists and turns, but that’s not so different from similar character arcs in thousands of other productions about budding love.
But in its language, delivery and tone, this new work now on stage through April 8 courtesy of TheatreSquared is unconventional in almost every way. Just how unconventional? Like, references to video game “Mortal Kombat” combined with a dance sequence that doubles as a homage to “Ghost” and “Dirty Dancing” and “Singing in the Rain.” It’s a thoroughly modern show about events in the world’s recent past, and it does so with these pop culture references and the occasional rap song, not unlike the history lesson/rap battle theatrical phenomenon “Hamilton.”
What: TheatreSquared’s “Vietgone”
When: Wednesday – Sunday through April 8
Where: Nadine Baum Studios, Fayetteville
Cost: $25-$44; a limited number of $10 are available for those under 30 years old
Tickets: 479-443-5600 or theatre2.org
In “Vietgone,” all of this plays out as the characters speak with an inverted language scheme. When the main characters, who are all refugees displaced by the fall of Saigon, speak to each other in the Vietnamese language, we instead hear salty, curse-world-laden English. How salty? One of the aforementioned raps struck me as a sadder, plot-driving version of Natalie Portman’s classic “Saturday Night Live” skit. When an American soldier attempts to speak Vietnamese, his sentences lack syntax or are just English-language nonsense. It’s a much more inventive and clever method than my description might make it sound.
“Vietgone” follows the story of Quang (played by David Huynh) and Tong (Rebecca Hirota). Much of the action takes place in a real place not far from here – Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, where thousands South Asian refugees forced from their homeland found temporary housing. The story is based on the experiences of playwright Qui Nguyen’s parents as they first arrived in the United States after leaving Saigon as the city – and their world – collapsed around them. He has previously described the show as a sex comedy featuring his parents, which it turns out is a very weird and very funny thing. You can read more about Nguyen’s mindset for the play in an interview he did for the Flyer several weeks ago After a debut run in California, the play has gone on to acclaimed productions elsewhere around the country, including a Manhattan Theater Club telling that earned high marks from The New York Times.
The playwright has an interesting role in the production, and it’s another of the unconventional elements of the show structure. An actor with many roles (Cory Censoprano) occasionally is the playwright, extracting stories from his parents and introducing the work to the audience. From there, we watch the characters zip around the country at high speeds on a motorcycle, adjust to sleeping in bunk beds (which were in this case sourced from the real Fort Chaffee) and attempt to find happiness in a new world much different than their former one. There are also ninjas in a fight scene directly out of a comic book, which is fitting because Nguyen worked for Marvel.
The story plays out mostly in 1975, just after the evacuation from Saigon. It does move around some, and the wooden stage doubles as a video screen for scenes of flying helicopters, rural gas stations and the Pacific Ocean in California, where Vietnam is both tantalizingly close and impossibly far away.
“Vietgone” feels like it happened thousands of miles away in some time long ago, and that’s perhaps one of the most compelling reasons to head to the theater. Underneath its modern, hipster veneer is a play about a situation that happened in many of our lifetimes at a place less than 80 miles from where the play is being staged. There are a few specific references to our area, such as a well-placed T-shirt, and I’m not sure if those were played up for the local audience or if they are universally applied as “Vietgone” gains national traction.
Either way, we need to embrace when local stories are globalized and told well in the process, and that’s something we can all celebrate in “Vietgone.”