‘Vietgone’ was brave.
Filled with energy, spunk and charisma, this staged cartoon production is determined to impress every audience member.
‘Vietgone’ is the story of two lost souls who have escaped a falling Saigon, finding each other in the midst of chaos and suffering. A love story? Of sorts, yes. A struggle for survival? Somewhat. An insight into the life of a refugee? Absolutely. This part is real and frightening. The voyage is urgent and the uprooting of families is heartbreaking, and we watch the juxtaposition of going home and creating a new home, while the war is raging in the background. Ironic or not, we want to know how it ends as we follow the Playwright’s (Hieu Luong) story of how his parents met during the war. Luong makes his debut and takes us on a voyeuristic journey of cowboy adventures with an undertone of true struggle and resilience.
‘Vietgone’ appeals to all the senses. The simple set is manipulated seamlessly to reveal several scenes in various states of America, as our lead characters Quang (Will Tran) and Tong (Kristie Nguy) find their way within the refugee experience. It is assumed that they would be dead if they didn’t leave Vietnam before now and threaded through this story is rebellious slam verse, spat at the audience, amongst a regular dialogue of genitalia references and four-letter-words that highlight the humour of the Vietnamese culture. Gosh darn it, there’s a lot to say.
Queensland Theatre has rehearsed a flawless stage crew with this genre-bent show. A beautifully timed confetti canon, hazy smoke effects and large screen pre-recorded scenes are amongst many visual treats for the audience. The set is constructed upon a rotating wooden disc that shows two sides of a 1970s billboard, creating space for multi-level dance routines and places to hide and it is all performed with precision. The circular movement on stage represents so many things, the lapsing of time, different parts of the world and it foreshadows the war that is rumbling beyond it. Sudden cracks of gunfire and bomb explosions are synchronized without fault as they rattle through the Playhouse’s stalls. Choreographed dance scenes, rap battles, slow-motion near misses, a flip-out of ninjas and comedic representations of middle America make ‘Vietgone’ a feast for the ears and eyes. There’s a lot happening, blink and you’ll miss it.
Big props to Michael Waters, Sound System Designer, as the audio could not be faulted. Timing was rhythmically beautiful and the movement from booming speakers to transistor radio transported the audience seamlessly. We were there in that refugee camp as mother and daughter argued about going home, if there was indeed a home to go to. Real stuff indeed.
Nguy brings all the sass in her role as Tong. She owns the stage and with Quang by her side, or beneath her, or behind her (the positions were many) the popping choreography and slam verse resonated far beyond Brisbane’s Playhouse Theatre.
Patrick Jhanur is a stand out. Playing not one but seven roles, this guy truly is a rising star. His variety of dialect and precise wit is without fault. Jhanur portrayed a gooey hippie dude, a Redneck biker and what we thought was an intellectually impaired American soldier at first, until it was revealed so cleverly that we were indeed watching these interactions through the eyes of a Vietnamese-speaking refugee. The intriguing placement of language for a true depiction of the refugee experience was both witty and powerful. Jhanur packs the laughs but brings with his performance strong messages of struggle and dismay. English lessons, anyone? Nah, who needs it when there are Playboy mags?
Aljin Abella, our instant friend, is the comedic sidekick every antihero needs and Ngọc Phan portrays the stereotypical Vietnamese mother we never knew we loved. Both of these multi-character thespians add much spice to this concoction of cartoon-like, cowboy chaos.
To quote the co-directors (Ngọc Phan, Daniel Evans) per the programme of this burlesque feat, “Viet women are not exoticised but given agency, Viet men are made into leading men – action heroes in the driving seat …” and it all just works. We were on the edge of our seats for this two-and-a-half-hour production which ended in a form of silence, as father and son reminisced on the love story that defeated the odds.
‘Vietgone’ was as brave as it was witty and caricature, and should be seen with urgency, as it is intended.
‘Vietgone’ plays until November 18th at QPAC. For more information visit the Queensland Theatre website.