Saturday, December 17, 2016

Play: Love in the Time of Evacuation

Vietgone by Qui Nguyen, Directed by May Adrales, Seattle Rep, through 1 January.

Saigon fell in 1975, four months before my 18th birthday. Like many of my generational cadre, I had a vested interest in the progress of the war, the draft, particular draft numbers, and its aftermath. More at an arms length I was aware of the fate of the Vietnamese refugees that fled that country in the wake of the Communist takeover. News was filled with the initial refugees, and the later Vietnamese Boat People, involving temporary quarters in US Military camps and a diaspora across the United States.

This is a story of evacuees, the first to escape South Vietnam in the wake of the communist takeover. It is also a comedy. And a musical. And has at one point a dance-off.

The play opens with the "Playwright" (Moses Villerama, who expertly handles all the minor male roles in the play) who asks for the audience to silence phones and unwrap hard candy, and makes clear that the play is not about his parents and how they met in a refugee in Arkansas (which of course means that this is exactly what the play is about). Introduces the cast and introduces a conceit - All the Vietnamese characters will be speaking in English, while the American characters will be talking in what English sounds like to outsiders (A jumble of perky, upbeat, gibberish - "Cheeseburger Cheerleader Freckles!).

And it works, in must the same way that the iambic pentameter worked in King Charles III. It brings us closer to the main characters and stresses the otherness of the Americans (A colleague once described that the rest of the world thinks of Americans as "blondes" - nice, pleasant, but totally cluelessness and dangerous even when they are trying to do the right thing).

The story itself is of two people you assume will never get together. Tong (Jeena Yi) is thirty, sarcastic, and exhausted from dating weepy men (Moses Villarama again). Quang (James Ryen) is a chopper pilot for the VNAF who is married and has two kids he never sees. As South Vietnam is collapsing Tong gets the magic ticket out for herself and a plus-one - wants to take her brother (Will Dao) but instead takes her acerbic mom (Amy Kim Waschke). Quang flies his buddy Khue (Will Dao again) and a helicopter of evacuees out to a US ship, and finds he cannot go back for his family. He finds he can't return, and he is now a refugee himself.

Quang and Tong meet in Arkansas. The two have a stormy relationship. Tong is romanced by a well-meaning, literally blonde American soldier (Moses Villerama, again). Quang gets an old Harley-Davidson motorcycle and with his sidekick Khue heads for California, intent on getting back to the war and rescuing his family.

The play itself unspools in timejumps over the summer of '75. Saigon Arkansas, and on the road with Quang and Khue. The stage dressing itself helps with title cards telling where we are now. Quang and Kue play out Easy Rider, right down to hippies, rednecks, and fringe tassels on Kue's jacket. Tong is trying to figure out how to acclimate with a very recalcitrant Mom whose sharp-tongued attacks on her surroundings ground a lot of the comedy in sense of family.

The actors are fantastic, and James Ryen makes Quang likeable and is, quite frankly, a hottie. Amy Kim Waschke spits out lines like they were fried American vegetables, and Moses Villarama is the utility player, flipping between characters like they were in his rolodex. The play itself gives the feeling of the people and the time, addressing the American "blonde-ness" in both how the war was fought and how it was fought against. It personalizes it and makes it more readable in human terms, and ends on a very touching note.

There are quibbles. Hip-hop wasn't QUITE a thing when the events went down, and there are modern anachronisms ("I got 99 problems, but the war ain't one"), but hey, we got Hamilton rapping up a storm these days, so that's the magic of theater (thought I was time-checking the music chosen at the breaks as well). The backlit stage was OK, but the chalkwork "pictures from home" that surfaces during monologs and solo songs didn't seem to fit well. These are minor things.

This is a good play in what is shaping up as yet another very good season for the Rep. Go check it out on Christmas Break.

More later,