Qui Nguyen’s play, Vietgone, now playing through February 18 at San Diego Repertory Theatre, is designed to take audiences by surprise – and it does. Fast on its feet, it turns the story of two refugees from Vietnam who meet and fall in love at a camp in Arkansas on its ear. In the process, it remakes the tale from a Millennial perspective that’s fresh, sexy, and very, very funny.
Quang (Ben Levin) and Tong (Katherine Ko) meet in that self-same refugee camp after escaping Vietnam in the chaos that was the fall of Saigon. Quang was a pilot and trained in the U. S. He misses his wife and two children, who did not escape with him, and he vows to return to Vietnam to find them. He’s even got a plan: he’ll make his way across the country to Camp Pendleton, where he can hop a plane to Guam and then find a way to be smuggled back into his homeland. Tong is there with her mother, Huong (Emy Coligado), and plans to assimilate by joining an American family as soon as one is available.
The play skips around in time, so the audience sees Quang and his buddy, Nhan (Lawrence Kao), on the trip west almost immediately. The pair’s trip keeps popping up, interspersed with scenes at the camp. In those scenes Quang and Tong “meet cute” realize that they have different goals for resettlement and proceed directly to having sex. They sing songs about their feelings, to hip-hop beats and disco club lights (credit Bo Tindell with a creative lighting design). Tong is pursued romantically by an American volunteer at the camp (Shaun Tuazon) who is trying to demonstrate cultural sensitivity by learning Vietnamese.
In a clever twist, at many points the refugees speak to each other in perfect colloquial English while supposedly speaking Vietnamese, while Tong’s American suitor speaks in broken, ungrammatical, English as an indicator of how his Vietnamese sounds to native speakers.
Mr. Nguyen gets the refugee experience of being plopped down in a new culture right, from the food, to the conditions in the camp, to the homesickness and the fantasies that the newcomers have about life in America. In particular, there is one extended fantasy that is staged (by George Yé) as a fight scene that is as funny and true as anything you’re likely to see on a San Diego stage.
Mr. Levin and Ms. Ko make an attractive couple, and the other performers shapeshift via costumes and wigs into the variety of characters the protagonists encounter. Ms. Coligado is particularly funny as Tong’s mother, a two-time widow who is entirely resistant to assimilation while yearning for a man to notice her.
Director Jesca Prudencio, a recent MFA graduate of the UC San Diego Theatre program, seems a good fit for the play’s ethos. Working in an open space that is bounded by a series of simple bamboo curtains above which is a row of screens displaying more complex projections (Justin Humphres is the Scenic and Projection Designer), she keeps the action moving and the actors loose. She’s also helped substantially by Melanie Chen Cole’s sound design and incidental music. Anastasia Pautova’s costumes range from straight-ahead to satirical.
Despite a disclaimer by the “playwright” that the story isn’t about his parents, a touching scene at play’s end between the playwright and his father brings home what is, indeed, a universal desire for love, relationship, and family, no matter what viewpoint guides cultural judgments.