It’s fair to say you’ve probably never seen a play quite like “Vietgone,” now onstage at San Diego Repertory Theatre. It’s the more-or-less true story of how playwright Qui Nguyen’s mom (who worked at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon) met his dad (a South Vietnamese Air Force pilot) — in a refugee camp in Arkansas, after the 1975 fall of Saigon.
Despite the awful chain of events that enabled the meeting of two displaced people who have lost absolutely everything, “Vietgone” is a laugh-out-loud comedy that’s full of surprises — from its stereotype-busting prologue to its thought-provoking ending.
Among the surprises are the play’s female characters, Tong and her mother, Huong. These are no fragile Asian Lily girls, but strong-willed women, sexually aggressive, and not shy about asking for what they want ... none of which is scary to a man like Quang, who is used to going out on dangerous missions.
But Quang (played by New York-based actor/musician Ben Levin) and Tong (played by Katherine Ko, a UCSD Theater MFA, who also teaches Korean music and dance), have totally different agendas: He wants to make his way back to the wife and kids he left behind in Vietnam; she wants to make a new life for herself in America. Falling into bed with each other is easy. Falling in love is not.
There’s only a cast of five in the show, but they fill the stage with dimwitted good guys, stoned hippies and redneck bikers, plus Quang’s war-and-backseat-moto-buddy, the playwright, and — oh, yes — ninjas. The whole company is terrific, moving through close escapes, souped-up sex and fight scenes, X-rated rap songs and dialogue, a cross-country motorcycle odyssey, fraught mother-daughter and would-be-lover encounters, and a few poignant moments. Projections by designer Justin Humphries create a perfect background for it all.
Playwright Qui Nguyen is devoted to comic books, Kung Fu, and family stories. After receiving an MFA in theater from Ohio University, he co-founded an award-winning “geek-theater” company in New York, married his producer, and now lives with his wife and kids in Los Angeles, creating big-screen superheroes for Marvel Studios.
“Vietgone” begins with a disclaimer from the “playwright” saying that the play and all its characters are completely fictional. Not true, of course, as you can read in the program. Nguyen’s mother is his main inspiration, and “Vietgone” is the first part of a planned trilogy of his family stories. Nguyen’s script for Poor Yella Redneck, the second play in his family trilogy, will have a reading during the Pacific Playwrights Festival 1 p.m. Friday, April 20 at South Coast Repertory. Tickets are $18.
If you have problems with explicit language, this play isn’t for you. If you’re a lover of unconventional theater that will have you talking about what you’ve seen and heard long after the show is over, don’t miss it.
• IF YOU GO: “Vietgone” plays through Feb. 18, 2018 at San Diego Repertory Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza, downtown San Diego. Tickets: $20-$69. (619) 544-1000. Note: $8 reduced-rate parking in Horton Plaza if you get your parking ticket stamped in the Lyceum lobby. sdrep.org