Review

Vietgone serves up family, immigration and the Vietnam War with a dash of rap and kung fu fighting

The Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre's Vietgone tells a story of post-Vietnam War immigrants with an unexpected but appealing approach, blending comedy, drama and romance with a bit of rap and a little kung fu fighting.

Royal MTC Warehouse season opener offers an unexpected but appealing mix of drama, romance, comedy

Simu Liu plays Quang in the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre's stylish production of Vietgone. (Dylan Hewlett/Royal MTC)

In most Western writing about Vietnam, the fall of Saigon in 1975 is an ending to the story. In Vietnamese-American playwright Qui Nguyen's Vietgone, it's a starting point.

The 2015 play, opening the season at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre's Warehouse, is "not a story about war — it's a story about falling in love," says Peter Fernandes, who takes on the role of Qui Nguyen in a funny, metatheatrical opening that tells us that the real Nguyen, as playwright, plans to mess around a bit with theatrical convention.

And Vietgone does, with an unexpected but stylish and appealing approach to the story that blends comedy, drama and romance with a bit of rap and a little kung fu fighting.

Yes, it's odd — but for the most part, it works.

Vietgone tells the story of playwright Qui Nguyen's real parents, Tong and Quang (Simu Liu of Kim's Convenience fame, front), as they try to make a new life in America after the Vietnam War. (Dylan Hewlett/Royal MTC)

The story here follows Nguyen's real parents — Quang (Simu Liu, of Kim's Convenience fame), a South Vietnamese pilot, and Tong (Stephanie Sy, seen earlier this season as one of the leads in PTE's Prairie Nurse). 

Post-war, both have ended up in a refugee camp in Arkansas — a situation they react to in wildly different ways.

Tong, who tamps down sentimentality with a tough exterior and biting wit, maintains she has no draw to her home country and is determined to make America her new home.

Quang, meanwhile, is just as determined to find a way to get from middle America back to his family in Vietnam. That's also the goal of Tong's mother, the sharp-tongued Huong (Jennifer Villaverde, in a deliciously nasty performance), whose homesickness manifests in a disdain for the food, the language and the people of America.

Jeff Yung rounds out the cast with a likably goofy turn as Quang's sidekick, Nhan, while Fernandes delights in a series of small supporting parts (his "Hippie Dude" may be worth the price of admission on his own).

From left to right: Jennifer Villaverde, Stephanie Sy, Peter Fernandes and Jeff Yung. Nguyen laces his script with lots of witty humour and a mish-mash of genre and pop culture references, including monologues delivered in the form of rap songs. (Dylan Hewlett/Royal MTC)

Stories of immigration and culture clash aren't new, but Nguyen makes it clear (with great comic style) from the outset that he intends to dispense with stereotype.

No broken English, bad accents or "earnest, humourless Asian" tropes here. Instead, he has his characters speaking more like contemporary young adults — underscoring the fact that in 1975, that's exactly what his parents, though strangers in a strange land, were.

That also means Nguyen — telling the story of immigrants through the filter of a gen-X first-generation American — laces his script with lots of witty humour and a mish-mash of genre and pop-culture references. That includes monologues delivered in the form of rap songs (not quite Hamilton-level dope, but delivered with panache, and resulting in what is likely the highest number of "motherf--kers" ever dropped on an MTC stage). 

Director Robert Ross Parker's stylish production makes smart use of Hugh Conacher's video projections to take us through various locales and time periods as the play tells the story of Tong (Stephanie Sy) and Quang (Simu Liu). (Dylan Hewlett/Royal MTC)

There's also a bit of slapstick (a courtship montage between Quang and Tong, interrupted by her protective mother, becomes a nice bit of physical comedy thanks to clever use of the sliding panels that make up Joanna Yu's versatile set).

As well, smart use of Hugh Conacher's video projections takes us through the various locales and time periods the story covers, and yes, there's some kung fu fighting — a pretty great, Bruce Lee-flick-style scrap (wonderfully choreographed by Jacqueline Loewen).

It all mixes together more effectively than you'd think it might in director Robert Ross Parker's inventive and energetic 135-minute (with intermission) production, though the script's winking, tongue-in-cheek tone sometimes undercuts the play's sincerity in the first act.

Not everybody is kung fu fighting in Vietgone, but Peter Fernandes and Simu Liu engage in a Bruce Lee-flick-style scrap, wonderfully choreographed by Jacqueline Loewen. (Dylan Hewlett/Royal MTC)

As the relationship between Quang and Tong — presented by Liu and Sy as believably complicated but still sympathetic characters — grows and shifts, we're drawn into a story that has surprising layers of complexity.

The point Nguyen makes is that the stories we think we know often aren't quite what we thought — whether the story of the Vietnam War, or of "the immigrant experience" in America, or of our parents.

Throw in some good beats and a bit of kung fu fighting, and Vietgone makes for a thoughtful, lively and fresh piece of theatre.

Vietgone runs at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre's Tom Hendry Warehouse until Nov. 17.

Simu Liu stars in Vietgone, a story of a family that escapes Vietnam and moves to America, told through kung fu and hip hop music. 4:14