Qui Nguyen’s “Vietgone,” at Seattle Repertory Theatre through Jan. 1, is a familiar immigrant backstory, told in a new way: with a hip, high-wire theatricality, a sultry sexiness and a quirky playfulness.
Most American families have at least one immigration backstory. And “Vietgone,” now in its local debut at Seattle Repertory Theatre, is one that may help us comprehend what is lost and gained for people who flee to this nation under duress, to become our neighbors and fellow Americans.
Sound earnest and heavy? No way. Playwright Qui Nguyen has mined his parents’ experiences as some of the 10,000 Vietnamese who immediately fled to the U.S. after the Vietnam War. But he’s invigorated their saga with a hip, high-wire theatricality, a sultry sexiness and a quirky playfulness that make “Vietgone” as entertaining (Cue the Ninjas! Roll out the dance numbers! Rev up the motorcycle!) as it is revealing.
Under the nimble direction of May Adrales, who also staged the 2015 premiere in Southern California, and with integral video contributions by Shawn Duan, this Oregon Shakespeare Festival-Seattle Rep coproduction profits from the freewheeling “geek theater” style Nguyen pioneered with his New York troupe the Vampire Cowboys. Evident too: Nguyen’s passion for comic books (he’s now a screenwriter for Marvel Productions) and his meta-theater reflex to write his own persona into the play (albeit briefly, in a prelude and in a final, poignant scene).
by Qui Nguyen. Through Jan. 1, 2017, Seattle Repertory Theatre, Seattle Center; ticket availability is extremely limited; call or go online for more information (206-443-2222 or seattlerep.org).
The heart of “Vietgone,” however, is the reluctant romance of the attractive, sardonic and grieving refugees Quang (James Ryen) and Tong (Jeena Yi). Their sizzling mutual attraction is a real lifesaver, and also problematic.
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In flashbacks to Saigon in April 1975, Quang is a married South Vietnamese military pilot, and Tong a U.S. embassy staffer whose love life is a mess, and whose intrusive, critical mother (Amy Kim Waschke) is on her case.
As Quang and Tong, then strangers, realize they must flee without those they love most, the narrative is serious, straightforward and wrenching. But once both land in the same dismal Arkansas refugee camp, the lust, wisecracks and (old-school) rap monologues kick in.
One of the most ingenious gambits conveys, comically, the linguistic disorientation of newcomers with limited English. What Vietnamese characters say in their own tongue is spoken in English. But when various Americans (many played by the versatile Moses Villarama) try to speak their native language, we hear what the immigrants do: random words and mangled syntax.
Villarama is new to the show. But the rest of the Rep’s strong cast members are repeating and burnishing their Oregon Shakespeare Festival turns. The charismatic, multidimensional Quang’s white-hot chemistry with the arch-yet-deep Tong is now a blaze. And the ambivalence of their affair is captured zestily in screwball-comedy-style repartee, and in slow-dance numbers to classic Motown.
There’s also a lively, jokey bromance between Quang and his pal Nhan (Will Dao), though Tong’s love-hate relationship with her kooky mom slides into sitcom clichés at times.
The solo raps are used to express the deeper frustrations of Quang and Tong, both guilt-ridden about “ghosts” left behind. But the immigrant reactions to this foreign culture are not monolithic, ranging from an eagerness to assimilate to a desperate need to return home. “Vietgone” also defies common American perceptions about the much-reviled Vietnam War. Quang gives voice to those who considered it a necessity to defend South Vietnam from Communist takeover.
Like many younger dramatists, Nguyen layers on expletives (and anachronistic slang) with a heavy hand. But more central to “Vietgone” is the verve and imagination that helped it win the prestigious ATCA/Steinberg new play prize, and the deft oscillations from cartoony high jinks to deep emotions.
Though it’s not a polemic, “Vietgone” is a public service in a time of scapegoating immigrants, and threats to bar new refugees from our shores. By endowing his engaging characters with humanity, sexuality and a specific past, present and future, Nguyen does his bit to defy assumptions and open minds.