The key to any good superhero franchise is an origin story. In order to root for Spiderman, audiences want to see him transform from nerdy schoolboy into the web slinger by spider bite. It’s no wonder that when playwright Qui Nguyen created a play of his parents’ meeting in a 1975 refugee relocation camp in Arkansas, that it’s stylized and written like it was made for Marvel. It makes sense because not only is Nguyen a talented playwright with a comic book sensibility and vision, he’s also in the stable of Marvel screenwriters. This is in no way a slight against his biographical play Vietgone, to say it feels like the first installment of Nguyen’s life as superhero. Playwrights with his unique point of view for the stage should be viewed as heroes for theatergoers. Like Spiderman had a new way of crime fighting, Nguyen has a new way to tell stories. Both feel really powerful, necessary, and a hell of a lot of fun to watch do their thing.
Studio Theatre has a knack for taking risks with staging shows in their top floor blackbox Stage 4 space. Vietgone is no exception. Audiences after they get out of the elevator are lead by arrow signs down halls stacked with suitcases and finally into what feels like a rec room, band practice space. The intimate seating is shaped around the stage, which has a raised platform for a three-piece rock band and is decorated with US posters from Arkansas all the way to Ft. Pendleton in Southern California. This decorative choice is no surprise because it maps out the journey Nguyen’s father Quang makes from the refugee camp to the army base in an attempt to return back to Saigon. The elements of the set and props design that feel really subtle and special is when it truly feels like this is a story a young Nguyen is telling in the basement of a childhood home with some band mates messing around during band practice. A refashioned crutch gets turned into a motorbike and a squeaky toy of a pork chop gets served in the dining hall where Quang and Nguyen’s mother Tong spar with and fall for each other.
Director Natsu Onoda Power has a firm understanding of theatrical pieces with comic book energy. She’s a founding member of the performance group Live Action Cartoonists and she’s previously created and directed Astro Boy and the God of Comics for Studio 2nd Stage. Power has a really strong directorial ability to balance the playfulness of the set and the pacing with some of the more intense material. While the show does have a high stylized feel to it, it’s also a story of displacement, family strife, and identity. Power, overall, does a skillful job of not letting the more serious moments feel jarring, while also transitioning into moments of theatrical jam sessions and some slapstick humor.
There are a few elements of the play that could have been finessed or re-tooled to gel better with a show that takes a lot of risks that mostly land. The music, in what isn’t necessarily a musical, sometimes feels unnecessary. Songs in musicals need to tell us something more about a character that the audiences don’t already know or more the plot along. There were a couple of songs that fell flat and felt repetitive in terms of repeating what audiences were already told in dialogue. The best song of the bunch is Tong’s song “Don’t Give a Shit.” After Tong realizes she may be falling in love with Quang after he’s hopped on his motorbike to return to Vietnam, she belts out this diva-esque rocker anthem that does a hilarious and revealing moment of her burning off her icy exterior to show off all her hurt and anger. The music is thrashing while the lyrics pretend to be aloof. It’s genius songwriting and a really dynamic performance that shows a new, refreshing side of Tong. The band is also really well used when it’s adding a sound effect to a moment or creating a background emotional tone to a scene.
The other small beef I had is with a scene that feels necessary, fun, and almost cinematic, but the references feel off. There’s a sexy montage of Tong and Quang’s “courtship” that gets played out in 80s and early 90s movie tropes (i.e clay sculpting from Ghost and candles on a cake ala Sixteen Candles). I got the sense that these were pop-cultural, Americana, romantic touchstones for Nguyen growing up but since we learn in a scene that he’s writing this play in 2015, it seems odd to use these references from his childhood to refer to his parents’ relationship in the mid- 1970s. A montage is a fine way to show this relationship grow, but the references took me out of time period in a odd way. They didn’t feel as funny and original as other very American references in the play, such as when the Vietnamese characters don’t understand the American characters, they hear them speak in stereotypical American slang and words such as “Big Mac Yee Haw.”
I adore the originality of Nguyen’s storytelling and the high energy of Power’s direction, but there’s a long fight sequence that while funny and really leans into the superhero vision that goes on a bit too long. The point and laughs are received in the first couple minutes and after that it feels like overkill.
The true superheroes of this show are the cast. The five actor ensemble is on stage almost the entire time for a two and a half hour show with little to no downtime (except for one speedy intermission) and their energy is stronger that kryptonite. Jacob Yeh, who plays the character of the Playwright and a handful of other hilarious characters is incredibly chameleon-esque in the way he transforms so fluidly. Regina Aquino who plays Tong is so raw in her performance. She may not have as strong a singing voice as Marc Delacruz who plays Quang, but she makes up for it in such a open, emotional acting performance. She really is so watchable on stage because of her spontaneity and humanity in her acting. Delacruz is not only downright dreamy in his leading man role but also has a secret ace up his sleeve. In a scene at the end, playing Nguyen’s father in present day he seems to transform in his body so seamlessly into old age and he’s absolutely, scene-stealingly hilarious.
Vietgone has a couple moments when it falters, but it’s a truly special, original piece of theatre. It’s certainly not like any other love story, superhero origin story, or tale of war on stage today. It has the ability to rock out, make audiences laugh, and take a real look at the immigrant experience in America that feels like the smartest, most unique, most skillful way to get messages across to audiences.