Vietgone opens the Guthrie Theater’s 2022-2023 theatre season, which is their celebration of 60 years of creating theatre in the Twin Cities. If this is the sort of thing they have in store for us this year it’s going to be an amazing season in the blue building by the river. Vietgone is the most original and innovative production I’ve seen at the Guthrie in a long time, always a bastion of quality theatrical productions, but not always the biggest risk takers. This feels like the Jungle Theater and Theater Mu were given the Guthrie’s budget and told to do what their hearts desired. Perhaps I’m thinking along those lines because the show this reminded me of in a way was the coproduction last season by Jungle and Mu of Cambodian Rock Band. While this is entirely it’s own thing there are similarities. They both tell uniquely Asian stories, both have a basis in real life and gave me a surprising new perspective on the history of their countries, and they both utilized music that I’m not overly familiar with in a way that completely engaged me. Vietgone is a stunning production from the story it tells to the way in which it tells it. Bursting with creativity from staging to production design to a script that somehow tells a cohesive story despite feeling at times like it’s flying every which way at once, shifting in time, and between reality and moments of heightened reality.
The Script is by Qui Nguyen with original music by Shane Rettig. The play opens with a note from the Playwright telling us that this story and it’s characters have no relation to anyone living or dead. So if you know his parents don’t tell them anything about this. The play is of course based in part of his parents story. Quang is a member of the South Vietnamese Air Force on the night of the fall of Saigon. He and his best friend Nhan pilot a helicopter full of refugees to an awaiting U.S. transport. Quang intends to unload the refugees and then fly back to fetch his wife and children. That isn’t possible and he ends up in a refugee camp in Arkansas. Tong is an embassy employee and as such she is allowed to evacuate with the armed forces and bring one person along. She wants to bring her younger brother but he will not leave without his girlfriend, so she brings her mother, Huong, who doesn’t really want to leave. Quang and Huong both plan to make their way back to Vietnam to rejoin their loved ones. Nhan and Tong realize that is not a viable option and will try and make the others understand this. For much of the play it’s like we are following two stories being told in parallel. Once the two groups meet, a third thread is picked up in which we follow Quang and Tongs relationship as it blossoms from one of benefits to friends with benefits and finally love. What the above attempt at setting up the plot doesn’t hint at is the humor and spectacle with which the story is told. Nor does it touch on the fact that at times the characters break into rap. What the show also did that was the most profound and completely unexpected, it showed me a different perspective on the Vietnam war. I saw it through the eyes of Quang, and that was a perspective I had never even considered.
If I had one complaint about the show it would be one in principle only, and that is that all but one of the five cast members is not local. I think we have an amazing pool of Asian actors in the Twin Cities and I would have liked to have seen a more balanced ratio of local to out of towners. But as I mentioned that’s only in principle because it’s hard to deny that the entire cast was stellar. I certainly can’t say that anyone on that stage didn’t deserve to be there. Hyunmin Rhee stars as Quang and is the only performer who doesn’t play multiple roles. He fits the role of the hero aviator well, and we believe his desire to face almost certain death in order to get back to his family. Emjoy Gavino is Tong and plays her with the confidence and sentimentality that the role needs. She also seemed the most at home with the rapping segments of the show. Rebecca Hirota plays Huong. She gets a lot of the laughs as the elderly mother trying to hit on Quang and her bluntness about Americans. Viet Vo seems to have the most roles, several of them as Americans who speak in Mericanese, basically random words strewn together, like cheeseburgers waffles football. His best character is a tough looking biker that Quang and Nhan have a couple of run-ins with. Eric Sharp, who we’ve seen on many local stages and most recently in Trademark Theater’s short film What you Can’t Keep Part 1 & 2, does great work with two particularly juicy supporting roles. One is Nhan and the other is Tong’s brother Khue.
Director Mina Morita does an amazing job staging this show, the transitions between scenes flow amazingly well. This is a very theatrical show and she embraces that and uses it to her advantage. It is her skill that keeps our bearings straight as we shift in time and place with ease, never once unsure of how what we are seeing fits into the larger picture. Pulling together all of the design elements there are several scenes that really stand out as brilliant. The handling of Quang and Nhan’s cross country motorcycle trip is fantastic. The fight with the biker and his back ups at a gas station is a highlight of the ingenuity at work, a testament to the skill of Fight Director Aaron Preusse, and worth the price of admission alone. Every aspect of the production seems to have pulled out all the stops. Scenic Designer Lex Liang, Lighting Designer Masha Tsimring, and Projection Designer Nicholas Hussong must have worked together extremely well. It’s hard to know where one begins and the other ends, it all blends and works together so brilliantly. Movement Director Darrius Strong and Rap Consultant Oscar Pagnaroth Un’s work give the rap segments a unique feel from the rest of the show, helping to establish that these are moments that step out of the narrative and I read them as almost interior character monologues.
I highly recommend Vietgone, but it is a bit on the adult side. I’d think most mature 13 year olds who are ok with profanity and the concept of sex would be fine with it. The production runs through October 16th for more information and to purchase tickets go to https://www.guthrietheater.org/shows-and-tickets/2022-2023-season/vietgone/.
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