Tuesday, April 18, 2017

MUST SEE: Vietgone is the Most Badass Play You'll See This Year

Vietgone is Hamilton meets Kendrick Lamarr meets the Vietnam War, and it's sublime. 

Photo by Rich Ryan.

Sometimes, if you're lucky, something will walk across your path that is so totally awesome, so fully realized, that all you can do is sit back in awe and appreciate it.

Vietgone, currently running at the Mixed Blood Theater, is one such entity. It has the brilliant theatricality of Hamilton; the raw emotion, profanity and lyricism of Kendrick Lamarr; and a brutally complex view of the Vietnam War from the perspective of a Vietnamese man who fought in it that defies all stereotypes presented in more traditional depictions such as Miss Saigon or Apocalypse Now. Vietgone is part On the Road with Jack Kerouack, part Dessa musicality, part kung fu-tastic; it defies all description and is singlehandedly the best thing I've seen so far this year. Go see it. The actors more than deserve it, and you need it for personal growth, and TICKETS ARE FREE. Just do it.

Photo by Rich Ryan.

To provide an overly simplistic summary: Vietgone follows Quang, a handsome, dedicated soldier and father fighting the Vietcong, and Tong, a beautiful, spirited woman defying cultural mores, as they escape Vietnam after the fall of Saigon and end up in the same American refugee camp, Fort Chaffee. Quang is determined to get back to Saigon to rescue his wife and two children, who he had to leave behind in the madness of evacuation; Tong loves America, unlike her mother Huong who longs to end her life in her homeland. Despite their different motivations, Quang and Tong become lovers and partners in their new world, perfectly complementing each other. The story follows their tug of war between tradition and modernity, war and peace, living in the past and crafting a new future. Quang takes a road trip across the country in a last ditch plea to get to his family, and Tong considers marrying an American she doesn't love to fit into her new locale; neither plan works out, and both decide to face their uncertain futures together. This all sounds so blase and mundane but please trust me: in this seemingly simple description are some extremely potent realities that will leave you breathless with their power.

Photo by Rich Ryan.

It helps that this is such an extraordinarily talented cast. Every single member is clearly having the time of their lives, and their excellent chemistry elevates the rich script to new heights. David Huynh anchors the cast as Quang, with a strong, wry delivery that makes Quang's heartbreak at leaving his family behind all the more wrenching. Meghan Kreidler is perfectly cast as Tong, bringing vulnerability to Tong's proud, stoic exterior. Sherwin Resurreccion is in his best role yet as the Playwright and a member of the ensemble, bringing hilarity to each of his scenes. Flordelino Lagundino is the perfect sidekick as Quang's best friend Nahn. And Sun Mee Chomet is a knockout as Tong's mother Huong and a member of the ensemble. Chomet steals every single scene and is delightfully profane in her role; I could not get enough, and she had the entire house rolling on the floor with laughter each time she appeared.

Photo by Rich Ryan.

The staging is simple but perfectly evokes each sense of place. The road trip scenes are particularly emblematic with cartoony postcards and simple motorcycle props that are surprisingly suggestive. Costume changes are quick and easily transition the viewer through each setting, which is important due to the many flashbacks and scenery switches throughout the script. And I have to give a shoutout to Brian Bose and Allen Malicsi who provided choreography and fight choreography, respectively. They paid attention to every single detail - spoofing classic rom coms for Tong and Quang's love scenes, filling a little Bruce Lee into every kung fu kick, providing a realistic kick back for every sputter of the "motorcycle" chases - and their attention to small items really elevates this show to the next level.

Photo by Rich Ryan.

If you follow this blog you know I have spent a lot of time thinking about the role of legacy in theater lately, and the responsibility for the arts to continue to push society forward. Like many theater lovers I was raised on "classic" films from the Golden Age of Hollywood and for a long time I expected the stage to reflect and replicate those stories - so I never minded the unceasing revivals of Rogers and Hammerstein and Bernstein musicals. But as I get older and encounter more diversified perspectives, it gets harder and harder to appreciate those shows. So many communities feel rightly ignored and offended by these "classic" shows - as best described in this incredible article about Miss Saigon (so important that yes, I am sharing it twice) - that I have a hard time appreciating them anymore.

Photo by Rich Ryan.

And why shouldn't we move on? Vietgone is the best argument yet for moving theater forward into a new paradigm. Why produce Miss Saigon when you can have this hilarious, heartbreaking, profoundly introspective piece that describes war in much more vivid detail and deepening complexity, and particularly that honors the community most affected by said war in the first place? Why immerse yourself in lovelorn ballads? when you can have a Quang rapping

You lost your brother? I lost my family
You lost your brother? I lost my country
You lost your brother? I lost my wife.
You lost your brother? I lost my life

In fact, I was not expecting the hip hop focus in Vietgone, and once I got over the initial surprise it seemed the most fitting way to flow the story. Rap and hip hop is the latest iteration of storytelling in our society, and Vietgone's vital perspective assaults the ears in this format in the same way Kendrick Lamarr does. I couldn't help but think of his recent song "DNA" as Tong and Quang pined for home, critiqued America, cried their tears and bared their fists:

I got, I got, I got, I got
Loyalty, got royalty inside my DNA
Cocaine quarter piece, got war and peace inside my DNA
I got power, poison, pain and joy inside my DNA
I got hustle though, ambition, flow, inside my DNA
Photo by Rich Ryan.

Vietgone is everything you could ever wish for in a theatrical piece, and it's the single most relevant thing I have seen to explain the pitfalls (but also the profound necessities) of participating in other countries' civil conflicts. It has heart, soul, and a little bit of rock and roll, and it will leave you with tears of joy and sorrow. Most importantly, it decolonizes the narrative of the Vietnam War that we so often hear and flips the tables on white America, portrayed here often as poorly speaking, ignorant, callous people. It's hilarious and deserved, and I wish more playwrights had the balls (or production companies would fund) such pointed critiques of the stories that are often told of our diverse communities. Vietgone hits you smack in the face with the flaws of traditional narratives, and it's a wonderful, poignant, necessary revelation. DO NOT MISS this incredibly produced, perfectly executed, gorgeously written love letter to all of those who have had to leave their country behind to build a new life in a place that doesn't want them. It's the best thing you will do for yourself this year (yes I'm calling it that early) and will linger in your thoughts long after the curtains close. I will leave you with the words of Quang, who provides the most profound endorsement of American intervention I've heard: "Many of them died so I could live — so I can be here right now."

Vietgone is on stage at Mixed Blood FOR FREE through April 30. You have literally zero excuse to not see it. For more information about the show and tickets, click on this link

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