Tuesday, April 11, 2017

"Vietgone" at Mixed Blood Theatre

Another smart and funny new play fresh from a successful Off-Broadway run has landed in Minneapolis. In addition to Josh Tobiessen's hilarious and heart-breaking Lone Star Spirits at the Jungle Theater, we also have Qui Nguyen's ambitious and genre-blending Vietgone at Mixed Blood Theatre. The playwright tells the story of his parents meeting a Vietnamese refugee camp in 1975 Arkansas in an inventive and totally unique style. Vietgone is part rap musical, part romantic comedy, part bawdy sex comedy, part war story, and all engrossing. It's in-your-face (literally, the cast often walks through the audience and might throw a finger in your face) and squirm-inducing, but is utterly effective in communicating the refugee experience and making at least this audience member rethink their views on the Vietnam War and American involvement.

The play begins with the playwright (as played by Sherwin Resurreccion, because who wouldn't want Sherwin to play them?!) introducing the play and assuring the audience that the play is most definitely not about him or his parents, wink wink. He explains the language used in the play, namely that the Vietnamese characters will speak in modern American English, while the American characters will speak in broken English and use a lot of phrases like "french fries, cheeseburger, yeehaw." This brilliant choice normalizes the refugees while really allowing us to see the experience from their perspective. And it's also really funny.

The main action of the play takes place in a refugee camp in Arkansas in 1975, along with a few explanatory scenes of the characters in Vietnam before they fled when Saigon fell and the American troops pulled out. Quang (David Huynh) is a pilot in the South Vietnamese armed forces and is forced to flee, leaving his wife and two children behind. Tong (Meghan Kreidler) is an independent young woman who is offered passage to America and sees it as an opportunity for a new life. The two find each other, and find something they need in each other, despite their differences and the obstacles they face.

The often zany comedy is interrupted by rap monologues by Quang and Tong, which is really the only time we get to hear their real thoughts, fears, hopes, pain. It's incredibly effective and sort of stops you short to see the serious situation behind all the jokes. David (a NYC based actor) and Meghan (fresh off a run in The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin that closed literally the day before this play opened, a transition she makes with ease and grace) both give incredibly heart-felt and raw performances. Meghan in particular is a force to be reckoned with. Sherwin and the other two actors in the cast (Sun Mee Chomet and Flordelino Lagundino) revel in the many bewigged characters they play, each more over-the-top than the last. e.g., Sherwin as Tong's way too sensitive and clingy Vietnamese almost-fiance and her bumbling American suitor, Sun Mee as her traditional yet oddly profane mother, and Flordelino as Quang's loyal buddy sidekick.

The show is a fast-paced 2+ hours (with intermission), moving quickly from one scene to the next with a few dance breaks and a super cool fight scene thrown in (dance choreography by Brian Bose and fight choreography by Allen Malisci). Mandi Johnson has dressed the cast in some smooth seventies duds (I want all of Tong's dresses), and Paul Whitaker's simple set features sliding panels upon which projections are displayed defining the location, which is important to help make sense of the ever-changing settings.

Vietnam is a complicated war for many reasons. When Americans think or talk about it, it's usually in the context of what a mistake it was, or the protests against it, or the horrible way our vets were treated when they returned. But, as this play so elegantly says, for the people of South Vietnam, war wasn't a choice. American involvement was not a mistake, it was a ray of hope. There are wars going on around the world today, wars that America may or may not get involved in, and should or should not get involved in, depending on who you ask. But what's certain is that the people in the path of war don't have a choice and don't want it, and American is supposed to be the safe place to which they can come to make a better life for themselves and their families, like Tong and Quang did.

The exciting, thought-provoking, and very modern new play Vietgone continues at Mixed Blood through the end of the month. You can make reservations here or, as always, you can take part in Mixed Blood's "Radical Hospitality" program for free tickets two hours prior to each performance.

This article also appears on Broadway World Minneapolis.