Thursday, October 8, 2015

Excuse me as I rave... (an blog review of VIETGONE by Qui Nguyen at South Coast Repertory Theatre)

I just got home after seeing a preview of VIETGONE by Qui Nguyen at South Coast Rep, so take in to account that what I saw was pre-opening, "not review ready." That said... the show blew me away! 

I first encountered Qui's writing while directing a staged reading of "SHE KILLS MONSTERS (THE ADVENTURERS EDITION)" for Artists at Play in Los Angeles last year. The play was shamelessly geeky, but also touching, tragic, and irreverent. 
I was impressed with his knack for dialogue, and skill at turning a play around on a dime from ridiculous hilarity, to sharp pointed emotional drama, and back again. His writing is kind of a roller-coaster that way, allowing for great theatricality and very human stories with flawed, lovable characters who carry their pain but are never weighed down by it.
I fell in love with SKM and saw a lot of the same skill and deft storytelling in VIETGONE tonight... And after this, I'm just gonna say it... Qui Nguyen is my theatre spirit animal!!!
VIETGONE is a non linear, retelling of how his mother and father met in the shadow and aftermath of the Vietnam War... But it is truly a REtelling and not a telling. It is an interpretation of the events in 1975 as told to the playwright and interpreted through his own contemporary lens. Through that lens, the typical, weighty "immigrant Refugee" story of ones parents that we often see in Asian American literature is vibrantly transformed in to a hip, witty, irreverent and touching narrative that surprises at every turn.
We are not phased when characters break in to hip hop spoken word when their emotions over take them. We are not phased when 70's slang, or perhaps Vietnamese accented English is replaced with contemporary or street vernacular. Qui's parents swear with the affable, streetwise voices of contemporary, smart, middle class, educated mixed up 20-30 something New Yorkers. Not because they actually were, but because thats who Qui, the playwright is and how he makes you see his parents from their own perspective.
There is no affectation of what it is to be foreign or other, but rather what it is to be in a place that is foreign. The "American" characters they encounter speak in broken English. We watch them adjust to the strangeness of their new life as refugees, we watch them make the realization that they have gone from the middle class citizens they were back home in Vietnam, to becoming "the Chinese" (referring to the poor and disenfranchised "immigrants laborers" they looked down on back home before the war) Its subversive subtleties like these that pepper throughout the play that create relatability through a spoonfull of sugary crass humor that enlightens while it satarizes.    
They muddle through this experience and eventually find temporary comfort in mutually casual sex, and its steamy and scintillating in all those ways you dont want to imagine your parents having sex. But its also very human and flawed and real. There are no clean story book romances here, just messy, complicated relationships when damaged people find intimacy on accident.
Perhaps they shouldn't be together. Perhaps they are too haunted by baggage more traumatizing than many of us could ever grasp, But they are not victims of war, they are survivors of war with scars that run deep. Their roots are showing and there is no way to regain "normal," There is only the option to build a new normal which is tragic in and of itself. And it is hilarious and sexy and ridiculous and gut-wrenchingly touching watching them make this journey.
The cast of five are efficient, the leading couple carrying their character arcs through as the other 3 bounce through multiple characters as grounded as the father's war buddy best friend, and as wacky as the Ninja back up army that protect a biker his dad got in to a brawl with at a bar (the playwright assures us this is the truth as the story was told to him).  The ensemble is deft and light while allowing the scars of loss just beneath the surface to inform much of the raucous humor.  
Its just an all around wonderful show and thats all I can say. 

Its always a point of frustration when I see theatre that really touches me because often there really are no words for it when someone's storytelling makes you feel, viscerally. I'll write about it, I'll tell people about it, but it doesn't encapsulate the emotion of "YOU ALL NEED TO SEE THIS, EXPERIENCE THIS FEEL THIS BECAUSE IT MADE ME LAUGH, IT MADE ME THINK, IT OPENED ME UP AND LEFT ME RAW IN PLACES AND UNDERSTAND THINGS I WOULDNT HAVE OTHERWISE AND THATS IMPORTANT!!" 
With theatre it often feels even more urgent more tragic because theres no DVD or blu-ray. Its a play with a limited run, It will close and that experience will remain momentary and so easy to miss and hard to share with others... To add insult to injury its in Costa Mesa, a city thats equally far from friends in San Diego and friends in LA.
So all I can say is... LA People, San Diego People, its worth the drive. 
If you get the chance, GO SEE this!


When: Previews begin October 4th. Regular performances Friday through Oct. 25; 7:45 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, 2 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays (no 7:45 p.m. performances Oct. 25).
Where: Julianne Argyros Stage, South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
How much: General admission is $22-$53 for previews, $30-$77 for regular performances. Prices vary by date and curtain time; discounts for seniors, students under 25 with ID and educators with ID
Call: 714-708-5555

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