Pictured: Vi Tran and Ai Vy Bui. Photo By Manon Halliburton.
By Bec Pennington
The Unicorn has triumphed once again with the raucously funny, absurdly cynical VIETGONE, a too-rarely glimpsed view of the lives of immigrant survivors in a new world, from their perspective.
Set mostly in 1975 at the fall of Saigon, VIETGONE follows two central characters who separately escape their home country, their family members left behind to an unknown, perhaps terrible fate. Ai Vy Bui’s brash Tong has made it through the war with a steel will and harsh rejection of weak feelings like love or sadness. While she views her arrival in the U.S. with her mother as an opportunity, eagerly learning the language and seeking ways to assimilate, loneliness seeps bitterly into her dreams and interactions. Vi Tran’s Quang desperately works for the chance to go back home and find his wife and small children, even as he is falling for Tong, even as the prospect of going back becomes less than a possibility. With the support — sometimes the rancor — of Tong’s sassy mother Huong and Quang’s friend, Nhan, Quang and Tong slowly come to terms with their second chances for life and love.
The small supporting cast wears multiple hats to fill the scenes, but under the expert direction of Cynthia Levin, we’re never confused by the rotating characters. As we bounce through the timeline, from Quang and Nhan’s cross-country bike ride to Vietnam, to the Fort Chaffee refugee camp in Arkansas, Emily Swenson’s simple set acts as a great backdrop, allowing Victor En Yu Tan’s lighting to do the main work of clarifying each of the locations of the narrative.
While the first act struggles slightly with awkward dialog and pacing, the characters are compelling nonetheless, and as the second act gets underway, the story comes much more into its own. The cold reality of each character’s pain is both tempered and enhanced by the irreverent, biting humor that permeates Qui Nguyen’s script. His odd styling choices work well to turn general Western biases on their head. Tong and Quang rap their inner dialogs and speak in casual slang. The American bit parts, pointedly portrayed by actors of Asian descent, speak in nonsensical phrases of “Yee-haw french fries NASCAR, cholesterol” when conversing with our Vietnamese protagonists – one particularly hilarious exchange revolves around the pronunciation of “Howdy.”
The story poignantly unpacks the complexity and exhaustion of the war’s end totally from the perspective of the displaced immigrant, unapologetically confronting the ignorance of simplistic American notions about the war and the people who had no choice but to live it. The final scene is side-splitting, but also deeply touching – a masterful piece of writing and performance that completely redeems any flaws that came before. This is a fiercely funny show that will make you weep.
VIETGONE runs through May 13th. For more information visit UnicornTheatre.org.