By Jean Lowerison
The Vietnam War isn’t exactly an event that inspires giggles. So what can one expect of a play called “Vietgone,” described by the playwright as “a sex comedy about my parents”?
Well, since the playwright is Qui Nguyen, one of the pioneers of “geek theater” and founder of New York’s Vampire Cowboys, you can expect humor, hip-hop, some drama and ninjas (yes, you read that right). Oh, and lots of profanity and sex.
“Vietgone” plays through Feb. 18 at San Diego Repertory Theatre.
In those last harrowing days before the fall of Saigon in 1975, Nguyen’s fictionalized dad Quang (Ben Levin), a handsome helicopter pilot who trained at bases in California, takes a group of refugees to the USS Midway, their first stop on the way to a new life in the United States.
What Quang didn’t realize at the time was that his ’copter would be pushed into the ocean after that landing, to make room for the next group. Lack of space on that one trip meant that Quang had to leave his wife and two small children in Vietnam.
Quang meets Tong (Katherine Ko) in a refugee resettlement camp at Ft. Chaffee, Arkansas. Headstrong, willful and independent, Tong would be a feminist if she knew what that was. Interested men are not scarce, but she isn’t looking for the homey-wifey thing, which drives wannabe husband Giai (Shaun Tuazon) crazy.
“Vietgone” is Quang and Tong’s fictionalized story, told in a zippy production that is brilliantly cast and well directed by UC San Diego-trained Jesca Prudencio.
Levin and Ko anchor the cast, which includes three other actors playing a total of 14 characters. The best of these is Tong’s mother Huong (Emy Coligado), a pistol of a mama — funny, nosy, intrusive, afraid of no one and always looking out for her version of Tong’s best interests.
She doesn’t know what to make of her hormonally-active daughter, who seems to drop her drawers with embarrassing frequency. Huong wants to marry her off, if only she’d listen.
But just as Quang and Tong are starting to get close, Quang and his best friend Nhan (Lawrence Kao) hop on a used motorcycle Quang acquired and take off on a road trip to California’s Camp Pendleton. The intent is to catch a plane back to Vietnam, where Quang wants to see his wife and kids.
This road trip comes complete with scenic backgrounds and a Redneck Biker antagonist (played with racist menace by Shaun Tuazon).
“Vietgone” is a sprightly show that hops around in time and place, aided by comic book-like projections (by Justin Humphres). The show may seem simply jumpy at first but begins to make sense as the show progresses. It works because Prudencio keeps the pace going, and because she has found five superb actors.
This is a real breakout moment for local actor Tuazon, equally adept at playing the violent redneck, a hippie dude, the playwright and blond Bobby, also attracted to Tong.
Kudos to Melanie Chen Cole for the music-filled sound design. Bo Tindell’s fine lighting and Anastasia Pautova’s costumes are definite pluses as well.
A charming, moving and utterly different theatrical experience, “Vietgone” offers engaging characters, a riveting story and — true to its unexpected nature — ends with and a perspective on that war that most Americans will be surprised to hear.
— Jean Lowerison is a long-standing member of the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.