An awful war, but a wonderful play

Given the propensity of any well-established repertory theatre company to play it safe, a seasoned patron of the arts might approach Oregon Shakespeare Festival's production of "Vietgone" by Qui Nguyen with any number of assumptions. One such assumption might be that any comedic play about the Vietnam War that is going to be seen by a predominantly American audience would be skewed towards a Western mindset. Another might be that since we've signed up for a comedy, parodies will run rampant, replete with broad stereotypes of Asian ethnic groups and language that is toned down so as not to upset those gray-haired patrons at the top of the donor food chain for whom one of the the worst foreign policy decisions in U.S. history is still within living memory. 

Mr. Nguyen's play puts any and all of those archaic scenarios to bed in short order. The playwright has delivered a sexy, stunning, ballsy piece of theater — a rock-and-roll love story that turns concepts about race, culture and the idea of "other" firmly on their head. While "Vietgone" is an uplifting and hilarious play, it carries deep and abiding messages about the impact of war — on society, on families, and on one couple in particular, as they navigate the complexities of young love in the most unlikely of circumstances. 

Leading the cast of strangers adrift in a strange land is Quang (James Ryen), a South Vietnamese pilot fighting on the our side of the war. Forced to abandon his family and flee to America, Quang is a young man torn between his own youthful impulses and a deeper conviction about his lost homeland. He is a perfect microcosm of the play itself — Quang loves the idea of 1970s America, with its freewheeling approaches to sex, drugs, and rock and roll, but his soul longs for home.

Although scattered at times (and easily seduced by the distractions of the day), he is, at his core, a man of great substance and integrity. Mr. Ryen is a talented artist who skillfully embodies the contradictions of the character he plays. Physically massive — this critic had a realization of his own prejudices regarding the corporeal fetishizing of the "small Asian" when confronted by a 6-foot-something Adonis moments into the play — Ryen cuts an imposing central figure. His Quang is remarkably visceral, focused, and intense. Ryen holds his audience transfixed for the full length of the play. If it was Nguyen's intention to pay deep respect to his own father (on whom the character of Quang is based), then the playwright could not have done better when choosing Ryen for the part.

With so robust a male lead, one might be tempted to paint the female protagonist in the story as the yin to our hero's yang. That would be a mistake. Blowing up yet another Asian stereotype, Tong (Jeena Yi) is a sexy, tough, self-actualized woman, quite at home in an American era of emergent feminist ideology. Unapologetically sexual, uninterested in marriage, and compelled by circumstance to become the strongest person in her family, Tong seems well-suited to a life in the West. But as the play progresses, we see evidence of her own deep ties to her culture, most conspicuously when it comes to her relationship with her mother (an old-school harridan played with exactitude by Amy Kim Waschke).

Ms. Yi delivers a gorgeous performance. She has crafted, in Tong, a deeply moving character. There are no broad strokes here; precision abounds as we observe the development of a young woman who is as vulnerable and filled with longing as she pretends not to be. Yi presents a character whose hunger for a place in the world gives the audience special permissions; not only to question assumptions about gender roles in Asian culture, but also to touch on the universal complexities of the female heart. Yi, now in her first season at OSF, is an artist to watch. Her sensitivity to her craft is beautiful to behold. 

The ensemble surrounding the principal players is solid and exemplary. Will Dao, Paco Tolson and Amy Kim Waschke all take on upwards of four roles apiece; they are exemplars of professionalism, putting not a foot wrong as they race from character to character, creating an overarching atmosphere of humor and skill that penetrates into the bones of the play.

Staging, sound and video design are smartly conceived. Despite being set in an era gone by, there is an abundance of contemporary music. Performers launch into potent rap routines with heavy bass notes and strobe lighting on occasion. There are projected images that run the gauntlet from scenes of military carnage to exquisitely rendered illustrations evoking the passage of time and the internal processes of the characters. Director May Adrales and her cadre of designers have skilfully interwoven such pop culture references as the boom-box scene from "Say Anything" and the pot-throwing scene from "Ghost" with the deeper motifs of human experience and the cataclysm of war.

While such contradictions may have come off as disjointed in less skilled hands, this production of "Vietgone" expertly walks the line between comedy and tragedy; Nguyen and Adrales have pulled off a moving and miraculous piece of theater that addresses large, complex issues in a satisfying way — while still giving their audience room to breathe and relate.

Our final word? "Vietgone" is absolutely bloody brilliant, and you'd be a fool to miss it. 

Ashland resident Jeffrey Gillespie is a Daily Tidings columnist, arts reviewer and freelance writer. Email him at gillespie.jeffrey@gmail.com.

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