Review: ‘Vietgone’ a funny and forceful story of love and loss at San Diego Rep
It’s an irrefutable truth, a basic principle of human existence: Things just go better with ninjas.
Not that “Vietgone” necessarily needs their help. Qui Nguyen’s bursting-with-personality play, now getting a smartly rendered local premiere at San Diego Rep, does just fine on more conventional matters of good drama: rich and surprising characters, irresistible story momentum, and a sense of something original and important to say.
But it’s Nguyen’s playful pop-culture savvy that helps make this funny, forthright and slyly affecting story his own — ninjas, hip-hop and all.
Of course, “Vietgone” is the playwright’s own story in a more literal way: He’s a character in it, and the saga centers on his own parents and their real-life struggles as Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s.
The playwright (as portrayed by Shaun Tuazon) attempts half-heartedly at the outset to convince us it’s not his family’s story at all (lest Mom and Dad get wind of what he has wrought).
He’s much more successful at dispensing of a few other key things: exaggerated accents, meek personalities and other tired tropes that historically have been trotted out in Western portrayals of Asians (and are sent up hilariously here).
Instead, Nguyen’s dad, Quang (Ben Levin) — as seen in 1975, well before the playwright was born — is a suave, handsome and heroic South Vietnamese pilot who whisks a chopper full of refugees to safety on the aircraft carrier Midway after Saigon falls.
His mom, Tong (Katherine Ko), is a fiercely independent, trash-talking and sexually direct young woman who all but drags her skeptical and world-weary mom, Huong (Emy Coligado), along with her to safety in America.
Quang and Tong finally meet at a refugee center in Arkansas. But Quang soon splits with his best pal, Nhan (Lawrence Kao), on a “rusted-out death bike” — Nhan’s words for the decrepit motorcycle Quang acquires — on a pie-in-the-sky quest to get to Camp Pendleton and then Vietnam, where he was forced to leave a wife and two young kids behind.
The story — which comes complete with plenty of R-rated language and adult situations — is told in overlapping flashbacks that can be jarring at first but flow more sensibly as the show goes on. The University of California San Diego-trained director Jesca Prudencio handles those shifts deftly, and is blessed with a capable cast that’s fully in tune with both the play’s humor and its heft.
The sharp-witted Ko (another UC San Diego grad) and the wry, disarming Levin (whose credits include the movies “Allegiant” and “Sleepwalk With Me”) make the intense but fraught bond between Tong and Quang feel particularly authentic, and soldier through rap numbers that are sometimes powerful, sometimes awkward.
The other three actors are all studies in versatility as they play multiple roles: Kao brings exquisite wit and comic timing as Quang’s pal and in smaller parts; Coligado is winningly cynical (if that can be a thing) as Huong, and has several vivid cameo turns.
And what a breakout show this proves to be for the San Diego actor Tuazon, who seems equally at home as the second-generation Vietnamese-American playwright and as a hopeless yokel of a U.S. serviceman who sweetly pursues Tong.
Melanie Chen Cole’s vibrant, music-filled sound design is a highlight, paired with Justin Humphres’ comics-minded projections (he also designed the spare but effective set), Bo Tindell’s resourceful lighting and Anastasia Pautova’s understated but eye-catching costumes.
Diversity is deservedly a much-discussed topic in theater these days, but in many ways “Vietgone” embodies what it ought to feel and look like: not only a rich spectrum of ethnicities onstage (which is obviously important), but an honoring of viewpoints that have the power to explode narrow yet persistent ideas about our world and the people in it.
That’s what theater can do when a playwright makes like a ninja.
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. (Some exceptions; check with theater.)
Where: San Diego Rep’s Lyceum Space, 79 Horton Plaza downtown
Tickets: $20-$65 (discounts available)
Phone: (619) 544-1000
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