Evaluate: ‘Vietgone’ is a humorous and highly effective story about love and loss within the San Diego Rep
It’s an irrefutable truth, a basic principle of human existence: things just go better with ninjas.
Not that the “Vietgons” necessarily need your help. Qui Nguyen’s playful full of personality, now having an intelligently rendered local premiere in San Diego Rep., Lends itself well to more conventional questions of good drama: rich and surprising characters, irresistible dynamics of the story, and a feel for something original and important to say.
But it’s Nguyen’s playful sense of pop culture that helps make this fun, no-nonsense, and smart-looking story his own – ninjas, hip-hop and everything.
Of course, “Vietgone” is literally the playwright’s own story: he’s a character in it, and the saga focuses on his own parents and their real-life struggles as Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s.
From the start, the playwright (as portrayed by Shaun Tuazon) half-heartedly tries to convince us that it’s not his family’s story at all (so mom and dad don’t get wind of what he’s done).
He’s far more successful at handing out a few other important things: exaggerated accents, mellow personalities, and other tired tropes that have historically appeared in Western depictions of Asians (and weirdly posted up here).
Instead, Nguyen’s father Quang (Ben Levin) is – as seen in 1975, long before the playwright was born – a polite, handsome and heroic South Vietnamese pilot who brings a helicopter full of refugees to safety on the Midway aircraft carrier after the fall of Saigon.
His mother Tong (Katherine Ko) is an extremely independent, trash-speaking and sexually direct young woman who takes her skeptical and world-weary mother Huong (Emy Coligado) to safety with her.
Quang and Tong eventually meet at a refugee center in Arkansas. But Quang soon breaks up with his best buddy, Nhan (Lawrence Kao), on a “rusted death bike” – Nhan’s words for the rundown motorcycle Quang acquires – looking for Camp Pendleton and then Vietnam, where he was forced to get one Leaving behind wife and two young children.
The story – which comes with many R-rated language and adult situations – is told in overlapping flashbacks that can be irritating at first, but flow more sensibly as the show progresses. University of California-San Diego-trained director Jesca Prudencio handles these shifts skillfully and is blessed with a capable cast that fully matches both the humor and the weight of the play.
The astute Ko (another UC San Diego graduate) and the ironic, disarming Levin (whose credits include the films “Allegiant” and “Sleepwalk With Me”) weaken the intense but strained connection between Tong and Quang feels particularly authentic and soldier through rap numbers that are sometimes powerful, sometimes awkward.
The other three actors are all studies of versatility as they play multiple roles: Kao brings exquisite wit and comical timing as Quang’s sidekick and in smaller parts; Coligado is winfully cynical as Huong (if that can be something) and has several lively cameo twists.
And what a breakout show this is for the actor Tuazon from San Diego, who seems to be just as at home as the second-generation Vietnamese-American playwright and like a hopeless joke of a US soldier who lovingly pursues Tong.
Melanie Chen Cole’s lively, music-rich sound design is a highlight, paired with Justin Humphres’ comic book projections (he also designed the economical but effective set), Bo Tindell’s imaginative lighting, and Anastasia Pautova’s low-key but eye-catching costumes.
Diversity is rightly a much discussed topic in theater these days, but “Vietgone” embodies in many ways how it should feel and look: not only a rich spectrum of ethnicities on stage (which is obviously important), but also respect from standpoints that has the power to explode narrow but persistent ideas about our world and the people in it.
Theater can do that when a playwright is like a ninja.
When: Tuesdays to Wednesdays at 7pm; Thursdays to Fridays 8 p.m. Saturdays 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Sundays at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. (Some exceptions; check with the theater.)
Where: Lyceum Space of San Diego Rep, 79 Horton Plaza in downtown
Tickets: $ 20- $ 65 (discounts available)
Phone: (619) 544-1000