by Beki Pineda
VIET GONE – Written by Qui Nguyen; Directed by Seema Sueko. Produced by the Denver Center for the Performing Arts Theatre Company (Presented at the Ricketson Theatre, 14th and Curtis, Denver) through September 3. Tickets available at 303-893-4100 or denvercenter.org.
For a person of my generation, anything that has to do with Viet Nam conjures up sad memories. So it was with trepidation that I approached this production. My fears were quickly and absolutely put to rest from the clever deceptive curtain speech by the “playwright” who immediately morphed into an actor. In breakneck scenes that jump backward and forward in time, we follow the adventures of five displaced Viet nationals who are resettled in camps in America after the war has broken up. Tong (Lisa Helmi Johanson) is a feisty, sexy independent girl who only had two tickets out of the country and had to choose between her brother and her mother. Quang (Glenn Morizio) is an impossibly handsome helicopter pilot who was promised he could go back for his wife and babies. In the fall of Saigon, this became impossible. The story of their lives in America is told in short funny scenes and rap songs.
The three actor ensemble (Brian Lee Huynh, Jordan De Leon, and Melody Butiu) become the other characters in their lives. Tong’s mother, her brother who will not leave his sweetheart behind, military personnel, hippies on the road, Tong’s old boyfriend, Quang’s wife – all the others that impact their lives and change their stories. Ignoring the difficulty of communicating with the Americans and understanding their strange customs, Tong becomes determined to forget the old life and make a new home for herself and her mother in the US. Quang, on the other hand, immediately starts planning a way back to the motherland via motorcycle to the Coast, jumping a ship to Australia, and making his way back to Viet Nam from there. A duet sung between the two entitled “I’ll Make it Home” illustrated strongly the difference between their goals.
It is scripts like this one that literally allow the audience to step into the shoes of people we might never know otherwise. All of the actors speak in American slang when they speak together which is the playwright’s depiction of their easy conversation in Vietnamese with each other. It is only when they struggle with words that we understand they are speaking in a language they do not know well. Tong and Quang behave like young adults all over the world when dealing with their attraction for one another. The few Americans shown do not fare well and are often thoughtless and not too intelligent. As one character states, “Why should they help us? We remind them of the enemy.”
But a new understanding is born as we go deeper into the story. Difficult choices have to be made; hopes exploded; nightmares put to rest. The heartbreaking moments of loss are more than balanced by the humor of the characters and their attempts to adapt to their new circumstances. They have such joie de vivre, such optimism, such faith in themselves. The original music written by Shane Rettig adds to the story and to the development of each character. The cast works together to change the set pieces to create new locations suggested by a table or a stool. The non-linear method of story-telling keeps you on your toes and makes you pay close attention to where we are in the story now.
I have to hand out special kudos to the cast and fight director Geoffrey Kent. Together they created one of the longest and funniest ninja kung fu episodes you will EVER see on stage. It involves flying knives, throwing stars, trapeze swings, high kicks, and slow motion battle moves. The gymnastics were incredible, switching from slomo back to full speed in the blink of an eye. One can only imagine the HOURS it took to create that smoothly flowing ballet of ninja dancers.
While the Viet Nam action precipitated the events that took place in the play, it is NOT about the war. It is about what it did to the people that got away and how their unassailable optimism wins in the end. It is funny and clever and touching – all at once. The final scene jumps forward years later to reveal a relationship that will make you laugh through your tears . . . my favorite emotion.
A WOW factor of 9!!