REVIEW | 'Vietgone' a mashup of genres and theatrical styles, to varying success

Question: What do Ninjas, motorcycles, war, romance, rap and refugees have in common?

Answer? Playwright Qui Nguyen.

A co-production between Seattle Repertory Theatre and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Nguyen’s play, “Vietgone” includes all of the above in a theatrical mash-up of styles and genres.

This sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. But having gotten my hands on the script, this critic, in retrospect, was impressed by Nguyen’s intellect and inspiration. Plus, he is widely recognized as a pioneer of Geek Theater.

The play dramatizes a personal perspective from refugees who escaped their troubled homelands only to be hustled into refugee camps.

Nguyen calls his play a romantic comedy, but he infuses it with Pop Culture, cartoons and punk sensibilities. The result falls somewhere between homage and caricature. He has taken his parent’s stories about Vietnam and infused them with Kung-Fu and Ninjas, bikers and flower children, rap and sex. And plenty of profanity.

Directed by May Adrales, “Vietgone” hip-hops through venues and goes back and forth in time at a frenetic pace. But never in chronological order. The scenes flash by in vignettes building on one another to the poignant epilogue.

Before the play begins, actor Moses Villarama, in the playwright’s role, explains that “Vietgone” is not a story of war, but a story of love. He insists that the play is absolutely not about his parents; he then warns us not to tell them about it.

But don’t be fooled by the humor and irreverence.  Nguyen wages war against minority stereotypes. The playful Nguyen takes a satirical swipe at Americans awkwardly jibber-jabbering Vietnamese, while the Vietnamese speak perfect English.

Although he asserts that “Vietgone” is a love story, he subtexts the impact of war on race, societies, families, and yes, even young love.  

July 1975, after the fall of Saigon. Two strangers, a Vietnamese man and woman, each flee their homeland and meet in a refugee camp in Arkansas.

He claims he’s a “bad-ass” South-Vietnamese helicopter pilot; she claims she’s a self-proclaimed “bitch.” He left a wife and children behind. She left a brother and a boyfriend. He brought his best friend. She brought her mother. He wants to return to Vietnam. She wants to stay in America.

When these two 30 year olds meet, sparks fly; and soon after, their clothes.

James Ryen and Jeena Yi fill the stage with their impressive portrayals of Quang and Tong.  The stereotypical image of Asian men is subverted by Ryen, a six-foot-tall Adonis. As Quang, he’s torn between his lusty desires and his love for his lost homeland.  As Tong, Yi subverts the image of demure Asian woman. She loves sex, hates the idea of marriage, and embraces the feminist movement. But occasionally, we glimpse vulnerability; she would be the first to deny it.

Nguyen’s use of rap has been criticized for a musical genre that didn’t exist in the mid-1970s. Quang and Tong rap soliloquies about their inner feelings. It is distracting, but they do it well. I suspect this is part of Nguyen’s brilliance.

Villarama also tackles several different supporting roles with believable characterizations. My favorite? Bobby, the sweet but dumb, blonde southern soldier who butchers the Vietnamese language in attempt to win Tong’s heart.

As Quang’s hest friend, Nhan, Will Dao makes an engaging sidekick. Then he displays his caring side as Tong’s younger brother, Khue, the one who convinced their mother to go to America. 

Mama Hmong, a glorious Amy Kim Waschke, is a real piece of work. Waschke plays several different characters, but her portrayal of Hmong is dynamite. A bossy-pants, spitfire mother, she’s a dragon who wields a powerful weapon — her broom. She had this critic laughing and loving her. In my own Geek-filled fantasy I’d sic her onto our president-elect and his cabinet.

Through videos and screen projections, we learn of Quang’s motorcycle journey to California, where he hopes to find a way back to Vietnam. Another terrific moment: The amazing, onstage, slow-motion fight between Quang and the Biker, directed by non-other than Nguyen.

The last 20 minutes are the best part of the play. It’s 40 years later, and the elderly Quang is having a touching and meaningful dialogue with his son (Villarama reappears as the playwright). This is Ryan’s shining moment as Quang.  He reverts to broken English in a final monologue about America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. His son says it was a terrible mistake. His father says he owes his life to America.  

As Americans, we are questioning our own humanity, faced with images of internment camps and the unfolding, heart-wrenching reality of Aleppo.

Incidentally, Nguyen’s parents have not seen the play and don’t plan to do so. They don’t need to. They lived it.

“Vietgone” runs through Jan. 1, 2017, at the Leo K. Theatre at Seattle Repertory Theatre. Tickets can be purchased by calling 206-443-2222 or online at