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Vietgone is bring-the-house-down good

Vietgone translates a tale about a specific time and place into a universal message about belonging.
Photo courtesy of DCPA Press

DCPA’s visionary new play

Vietgone, the dramedy musical currently in production at the Denver Center for Performing Arts, is the play the world needs right now, and not just because it’s incredibly entertaining.

Vietgone tells the story of two young adults who immigrate to a refugee camp in mid-west America to escape the destruction of the Vietnam war in 1975. It’s a love story above all else, but writer Qui Nguyen subtly and not-so-subtly uses this romance to showcase the immense struggles that immigrants face in an unwelcoming America.

Needless to say, the play is extremely political and timely. There is at least one joke aimed directly at President Trump, but the majority of Vietgone is not specific to any political leader, movement, or agenda. This seems almost impossible since the plot is inspired by the real experiences of Nguyen’s parents and is heavily about the Vietnam War. But Nguyen sees the universal implications of the story of Vietnamese refugees during the 70s.

The bulk of the dialogue articulates timeless themes of loss, family, heritage, and, of course, love. Several monologues are given that dramatically lament the characters’ emotional desolation and unhappiness about leaving everything they had behind, only to come to a place where they aren’t wanted and are misunderstood. The stakes, most literally, are life and death.

Unexpectedly, Vietgone deftly balances poignant dramatic beats with hilarious comedic sequences. The best scene in the entire play, if one could be chosen, involves two friends, a motorcycle, an angry biker, and ninjas who literally swing in from the wings wielding throwing stars. 

A close second-best is a montage of days passing in the heat of summer and leisure of sex, as two lovers conduct their steamy affair, in spite of the crazy antics of protesting mothers, best friends, and camp guards. All the while the cast dances around the stage, exchanging undergarments and sensual looks to the beat of soulful 70s R&B.

With a cast of only five actors, including one who speaks for the playwright himself and serves as narrator, the Ricketson Theater is filled to the brim with pure human emotion but also ecstatic laughter and the more-than-occasional rap song. 

In a move that feels entirely like an effect of Hamilton, Vietgone includes multiple music breaks in which characters rap and sing their feelings. As cringeworthy as it sounds, and sometimes is, the scenes work against expectations to bring a much-needed catharsis to the play and, surprisingly, give the characters some of their deepest, most touching moments. No stone is left unturned in these musical interludes: emotional torture from betraying loved ones, constant drug use to feel nothing, and hatred for the place that saved one from death are merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the original music written by Shane Rettig.

The stage of the Ricketson is transformed into a strange but luring minimalist wasteland. The actors travel around a series of platforms that serve as any locale from Asia to the coasts of California via creative placements of location signs in hidden compartments, designed into the props or written on the walls of the theater itself. The gray and black simplicity of the set augments Vietgone’s universality thanks to the impressive design from Jason Sheerwood.

Endlessly surprising and subversive in its storytelling, Vietgone comes out of nowhere, leads everywhere, and in the end, steals its spot as one of the best plays in recent memory. It’s an event not to be missed.

Vietgone runs now through Sept. 30 at the Ricketson Theater. Visit denvercenter.org for tickets and more information.

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