Regional Reviews: Florida - West Coast
Also see Bill's review of The Turn of the Screw
To begin with, he offers a story populated by strong, resilient, and sexy Asian characters. Yes, some of the people who exist on the edge of the story are caricatures, but then by dint of extraordinary writing they will take on added nuance to keep the audience interested. The most important characters are vividly multidimensional, real living creatures who feel like they could jump off the stage into mid-1970s America. Many other surprises await the audience to both entertain and illuminate the era.
An actor appears at the start of the play, representing the author, assuring us that the people on stage are all fictional and absolutely do not stand in for his parents, who have never seen the play. He also issues a threat about what he is liable to do, should anyone tweet any spoilers to them (his parents). This sets up the unique world of Vietgone, part emotional truth, party whimsy.
Jeff Kim is our hero, Quang, giving a riveting performance, at least until the final scene in which he plays the same character, grown much older, and raises the bar several notches more. Sami Ma is opposite him as Tong. She is fine but not quite on the same level as Mr. Kim. Three other actors play various characters: Jodi Kimura, whose main role is Tong's mother, Huong is emotionally brilliant as a woman whose life has been upended by 30 years of war. Kenny Tran plays Quang's best buddy and multiple other roles, always an asset, and Vi Tran plays the playwright at the top of the show and several other suitors for Tong. It took me till after the play to realize that it is not actually Qui Nguyen who gives the opening remarks, and Mr. Tran disappears almost as deeply into his other roles.
No matter how fine the acting, this production belongs to director Brian Balcom. He stages with a sure hand, but he gets his cast to stay attuned to the many unusual stylistic ins and outs. I can absolutely imagine a production of this play gone completely haywire, directed by a less sensitive director. He is aided by a brilliantly imagined set by Jerid Fox, lines of electric line poles to define the setting as the South, as well as fine projections which also add depth. Costumes by CEO and Producing Artistic Director Stephanie Gularte are awash in bell bottoms for all, and historically accurate. Looking at pictures of multiple previous productions of this play, none seem to pop the way American Stage's version does.
I hesitate to call this play and production phenomenal, as I'm afraid that doesn't do it full justice. What I will say is that anyone who loves great theater should make the trek to American Stage to see Vietgone.
Vietgone runs through November 3, 2019, at American Stage, 163 Third Street North, St. Petersburg FL. For tickets and information, visit www.americanstage.org.
The cast (in alphabetical order):
*=Member of Actors' Equity Association