The play title “Vietgone” refers to loss, and this loss is total for the primary characters: loss of land, loss of identity, loss of many family members, loss of hope. Vietnam is a place now gone, irrecoverable, though always there in memory and desire.
The Capital Stage production of Qui Nguyen’s “Vietgone,” directed by Jeffrey Lo, is not a play about the Viet Cong, despite the similar sounds in of the two words, but about adult Vietnamese refugees in 1975. Vietnam was of course one of the longest wars in American history and is currently seen as an unmitigated diplomatic, moral, military, and every other kind of disaster – at least by the liberal Anglo-American population.
One of the signal contributions of this play is to help us to see how different can be the view among the Vietnamese who immigrated here can be from the views of nativeborn American citizens (who include their own children). For these character refugees, the military defeat and immigration to America were, at least initially, their own unmitigated disaster. And these Vietnamese remain grateful to Americans for trying to support the government of South Vietnam as long as they did, and for, in effect, saving their lives.
Of course the play hardly provides an overall endorsement of American life, with both comic and honest critical observations. The food is unappealing, except for burritos; the refugee center in Arkansas is composed of bunkbeds in a fort, which we return to repeatedly in the play. One character observes that America doesn’t quite live up to the travel brochure.
The play deploys a variety of diverse, conflicting – and occasionally unsuccessful – dramatic strategies to present experience: four large screen TVs at the back of the stage, rap songs belted out by most of the major performers, a kung fu fight complete with guest ninjas and a motorcycle journey across the Midwest and Southwest, an extended musical dance number. Some of these devices owe their genesis to Nguyen’s earlier associations with what has come to be called “geek theater.”
Perhaps the first innovative and dramatic (pun intended) technique used is the character Playwright, appearing at beginning and end, and bearing the eponymous name of the author Qui Nguyen. This is a self-conscious, metafictional strategy, perhaps a bit reminiscent of the state stage manager in Our Town or the entire structure of the Pirandello play “Six Characters in Search of an Author.” It includes us in the action, but is also a distancing technique, as at the end when the narrator Playwright interviews his own father, the character Quang, now 60 years old and 40 years removed from his role in the play.
The character Playwright is played admirably and comically by David Crane, an anglo actor who also plays playing Bobby, the bumbling GI who tries to romance the female refugee Tong with his pidgin, halting English versions of Vietnamese. He is even more emphatic in his final appearance as Playwright, where his nativeborn American norms render him clueless in the intellectual debate over the value of the Vietnam war.
This production’s acting is consistently powerful, varied, and effective, especially in the two key roles of Quang (Jomar Tagatac) and Tong (Rinabeth Apostol), the 30-year-old displaced persons who eventually recognize they are in love. Sometimes these innovative strategies succeeded powerfully, as in the adjoining rap songs by Quang and Tong, the dueling repetitive rhythm of “Home, I’ll Make it Home,” a phrase that deftly marks Tong’s desire to make a new home in America, but also Quang’s desire to return to Vietnam.
At one point the video screens show powerful scenes of pain, including large close-up photographs of the Vietnamese hovering in poverty who are left behind in the American defeat. Sometimes the geek theater innovations seem lame: the portrait of the two “flower people” descends into predictable and exaggerated cliches. They function as comic foils, in their post-Vietnam liberalism, for Quang’s well-articulated point that these Vietnamese refugees didn’t despise American aid during the Vietnam war, didn’t see the Viet Cong as liberators and they were radically unhappy with the war’s aftermath.
A later scene is equally a dubious inclusion: Quang and his buddy, motorcycling through America, are attacked by a redneck biker, who is ultimately aided by ninjas who appear suddenly. Quang “heroically” defeats the redneck and the ninjas. This sequence was not only spurious and exaggerated, but essentially unconvincing.
Despite the painful historical and social themes, this production is very funny and entertaining. One source of the comedy is language differences; the playwright and the production company have taken the innovative step of having American soldiers and officials speak in pidgin English (an echo presumably of their feeble attempts to speak Vietnamese) while the Vietnamese characters speak fluent, idiomatic and profane contemporary English.
One comic exchange between Tong, the Vietnam-born heroine, and her long-suffering and hysterical mother, Huong, is particularly memorable. Huong pretends to be ailing to gain her daughter’s support and maintains she is at “death’s door.” Tong, dripping with quick sarcasm, deconstructs this cliché and points out that her mother isn’t at “death’s door” or “death’s driveway” or even in “death’s zip code”: she’s now has moved to America from Vietnam, away from the bombs and death in her native country.
The play recalls the young adulthood of the Playwright’s parents when they were newly immigrated to America, a bit unhappy, lost, longing for home, but also finding each other. So it’s a nostalgia play, but also a travelogue or motorcycle road trip across America by Quang: a prominent motif of the set is the painted yellow line in the middle, leading to a graphic of a highway on the back wall. He travels to and from Arkansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and California, in a quixotic search to return to Vietnam, but ends back in Tong’s arms. The question that we’re left with is whether all these disparate geek theater parts fit together.
If you go
Capital Stage, 2215 J St., Sacramento
When: The play opened March 16 and runs through April 14, Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., with matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m.
Cost: Ticket prices range from $30-$40.
Info: 916-995-5464, capstage.org