Vietgone

vietgone

Source: twitter.com/mixed_blood

Without a doubt, Vietgone is my new favorite show. I’ve known Qui Nguyen’s writing from She Kills Monsters, a favorite script of mine that (while I’ve yet to see staged) I cherish for its female protagonists and humorous perspective on D&D and geek culture. But I wasn’t prepared for the hilarious, heartbreaking, and sexy world that Vietgone creates.

How do I begin to describe this performance? Well, for one, there’s the stellar cast of characters – the playwright (Sherwin Resurreccion) introduces us to Quang (David Huynh) and Tong (Meghan Kreidler), who met each other in a refugee camp in Arkansas. Tong and her mother (Sun Mee Chomet) have come to America in order to escape the collapse and fallout of US Troops pulling out of Vietnam. Quang, a helicopter pilot for the South Vietnamese forces, has come to the US against his will after he and his friend Nahn (Flordelino Langundino) landed on an US military vessel and had no way of going back to Vietnam. Quang wants nothing more than to find his way back to Vietnam while Tong believes the life that’s best for her, where she can become who she wants to be, can only be found in the US. Despite their differences, they become “friends with benefits,” then fall in love. But the struggles of being an immigrant, a refugee from war, in the United States complicates their lives and their relationships.

Chomet and Kreidler steal the show with their hilarious mother-daughter relationship (especially Chomet, whose punch lines and physical humor will make your sides ache). This entire cast is incredible, moving between bold, honest sexuality and painful loss with boldness and delicacy. Punctuating certain scenes are rap numbers, feeling half Doomtree, half Lin Manuel Miranda. They highlight inner thoughts the way a monologue would but add an energy and musical element that fuels and powers the show in its rich, vibrant language and environment. In a nonlinear narrative, the raps also work to tie different scenes together as they occur out of time sequentially.

Language is used wonderfully in this show – playing with American words to give the idea of what English sounds like to those who don’t speak it, replacing sentences with words like “Tater tots! Nixon!” Playfully and seriously making fun of the US, the criticism is not just about American culture but how refugees are treated, how one finds a home in a country that promises things it cannot deliver, and the complications of US military involvement. I learned essentially nothing about the Vietnam War in school, except that most people think that it was a mistake. This play clues us in on a different perspective – that South Vietnam needed US military intervention in order to keep the VC from destroying them, and that one cannot simply painting a war as right or wrong. Showing life in the camps scattered throughout the US, camps I never knew existed, not only presents overlooked history, but at a different kind of immigration story – one that complicates the narrative we think we know.

With amazing design by Paul Whitaker (set and lighting), Abbee Warmboe (properties), Mandi Johnson (costumes), and C Andrew Mayer (sound), this production creates a world that shifts easily between time and space, allowing for everything from a motorcycle trip to California, profanity-filled mother -daughter arguments about the camp, and movie-referencing sex scenes (including Say Anything, When Harry Met Sally, and Titanic to name a few) all set to the soundtrack of Redbone’s groovy “Come and Get Your Love.” You really just have to see it.

This show is sensual, heartwarming, provocative, and challenging, making its audience question not only what we think we know about sex and relationships, but also what we think we know about history and about the US. It’s one of the funniest shows I’ve ever seen while also giving voice to a story that until now, I’ve never heard. Some argue that theater should be entertainment, some argue it should say something important about being human, some say it should allow for different voices and different perspectives to be heard. Vietgone does all of that and more. It absolutely should not be missed.

Vietgone is written by Qui Nguyen and is directed by Mark Valdez. It is playing now through April 30th at Mixed Blood Theatre. Ticket and show information can be found on Mixed Blood’s website. For every performance, tickets are available free of price, first come/first served, two hours before the show through Mixed Blood’s Radical Hospitality program.

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The Master Builder

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Source: facebook.com/TheatreNoviMost

I love a show that takes a new twist on a classic production and Theatre Novi Most’s The Master Builder does just that. Grabbing Henrik Ibsen’s play by the throat and delving down to its core, this adaptation creates a dark, fantastical world where trolls are real and a powerful, seductive tension perpetually simmers beneath the surface.

The Troll (Alex Barreto Hathaway) introduces us to this world, describing Norwegian winters and life there. Physically pulling a statuesque Halvard Solness (Pearce Bunting) onstage, a master builder whose tale the Troll eagerly wants to tell, the Troll shifts into different people in Halvard’s life – his coworker Ragnar whom he is trying to prevent from leaving and getting his own architectural work; Kaia, Ragnar’s fiance, whom Halvard is having a sort of sexual relationship with; and Doctor Herdal. Herdal, brought in by Halvard’s wife Aline (Barbra Berlovitz), is there to help Aline who continues to suffer after the loss of her twin children and the destruction of their former home, and to ascertain whether Halvard might be going mad. Through all of this, the Troll shifts between this figures, seeing to pay homage to the shapeshifting trolls/frost giants of Norse Mythology. As Halvard grapples with what he calls the troll inside him – physically represented by the Troll and expressed through his own id and desire – he tries to construct a life and mold the people around him into what he desires. And then, with a knock on the door and an explosion of party music, disco lights, and confetti, Hilda Wangel (Shelby Richardson) appears in Halvard’s life. A young woman he hardly remembers, Halvard one made a twisted promise that he would build her a kingdom. And now Hilda has come to reclaim what she has been promised.

This production is stunning and jaw-dropping. Bunting’s builder is Shakespearean at moments, on par with a self-destructive Hamlet, but also feels new and unique, unlike anyone we have met before. We want him to build something astounding, but we also aren’t sure we want to be left alone in a room with him. Hathaway’s Troll steals the show with his clear shifts between character, humor, and breaking through the fourth wall to engage with the audience. Berlovitz is beautiful, serene, and sad, contrasted with Richardson’s beautiful, chaotic energy. Both seek to change Halvard for the better and become at odds with each other in their desires.

With a simple, Scandinavian-inspired set that becomes a playground for building and destroying dreams, a rich sound design that shifts between low background murmurs to loud music, and costuming that capture each character’s mentality while playing with recognizable styles in Scandinavian stories (lederhosen, hipster backpacker, wealthy socialite, fur-wearing mountain man), a rich, metaphoric space is created where rocks become more than just mere props and a shift in light and sound brings powerful changes. Novi Most specializes in incorporating physicality into their work and it is used in this piece to its full impact – from the Troll’s shifting between characters, to character entrances, to personal interactions and body language, to nudity. Actions can say things that words cannot or give them a different meaning, and this adaptation uses that create bold, powerful, and discomforting drama.

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a production quite like this and I’m grateful I had the opportunity to see such an incredible adaptation. Each moment carries with it a certain complexity and I’ve found myself puzzling over it long after the show ended. I cannot recommend this show enough and hope you all get the chance to enter this strange, frightening, magical, and beautiful world.

The Master Builder is adapted from Henrik Ibsen’s play and is directed by Vladimir Rovinksy. It is playing now through April 22nd at the Southern. Ticket and show information can be found on Theatre Novi Most’s website as well as the Southern’s website. 

West Side Story and Latinx Artists

As I sat at my computer, doing anything but write up my review of Ordway’s production of West Side Story, I realized that I simply couldn’t write the review. I opted to focus on choreography as a way to discuss the layers of feelings I had about the production. But I couldn’t write. I had local actor Ricardo Vazquez’s words, who spoke about the show at a birthday part I attended last fall, of “This is not a show about Latinos that needs to be done anymore” ringing in my head.

This morning I came across a post from ALMA, the Alliance of Latinx Minnesota Artists, on Facebook in response to this article from the Star Tribune. Instead of writing my own post, I am instead sharing their words from their original post which can be found on their Facebook page. I hope that by sharing their post and their words that more people will be aware of the issues in place of this production and wider problems in our theater community.

‘We are the Alliance of Latinx MN Artists (ALMA). Below is our statement in response to the unfortunate words printed in the Star Tribune on April 6th, 2017 in regards to our local Latinx community of artists.

This letter is in response to the article To stage ‘West Side Story,’ Ordway Center decided to grow Latino talents by Rohan Preston published in the Star Tribune on Thursday, April 6, 2017. The article implies our local Latinx artist community is lacking the necessary ability to appear on the Ordway stage in a musical. Ordway Artistic Director James Rocco states, “There are not a whole lot of Latino musical theater artists in town…” More than one year ago our local Latinx community was promised a strong commitment by James Rocco and the Ordway to partner with Teatro del Pueblo to ensure our representation on stage. The only catch was we would need to be trained through weeks of workshops, classes, and seminars in order to be ready for the first round of standard auditions.

Suddenly, Latinx artists ranging in experience from professional union actors with over 30 years of credits to recent BFA graduates were asked to attend the workshops, but told by Teatro del Pueblo that the Ordway was accustomed to a certain standard of excellence. We were told our local Latinx community needed to prove its own value for the wonderful opportunity to play gang members in a 60-year-old musical written by two white men that ends with one of our people shooting the romantic lead and being placed in handcuffs.

In the end, this “commitment to growth” by the Ordway yielded only two local Latinx artists cast, while more than 10 additional roles were filled with out of town actors, clearly stating through action that the Ordway was embarrassed of our local Latinx talent. This was supported by Rohan Preston’s unverified assertion, “There’s a wealth of musical theater artists among African-Americans in the Twin Cities, and to a lesser degree, Asian-Americans. But Latinos? Not so much.”

We are the Latinx actors, directors, producers, dancers, singers, playwrights, educators, and theater artists that seem to be non-existent in the eyes of Mr. Preston, The Ordway Center and, unfortunately, even Teatro del Pueblo.

We are professional artists. We are not in need of charity, workshops or instructions on the fundamentals, but rather regular and consistent opportunities. It is a fact that our presence on stage is not as visible as in other major theater towns, though not due to the lack of talent or unwillingness, but because opportunities to play roles are infrequent and inconsistent. We will not tolerate organizations who feel they have the right to label an entire community as unworthy to be represented on stage.

While we are pleased that the Ordway is helping new actors learn how to become professionals, we are not all new at this. Just because the Ordway and Teatro del Pueblo, for very different reasons, do not see us work, it does not mean that we are all amateurs in need of fundamental skill development. This community of Latinx theater artists ranges from members of Actors Equity to more recent graduates of excellent conservatories and training programs including our own University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theater BFA.

We would also like to speak about the Ordway’s partnership with Teatro del Pueblo. The onus of finding local talent was solely placed on Teatro-a smaller less-resourced organization. This assumes that only Latinx organizations can know Latinx talent and if they are unable to provide a roster, then it is Teatro’s fault and not the Ordway’s. In addition, no one organization such as Teatro del Pueblo represents the Latinx community nor should any individual such as Al Justiniano ever feel the right to speak for an entire community of people.

The Ordway has a track record of contentious relationships with local communities of color. The 2013 production of Miss Saigon drew widespread condemnation from members of the Asian American community and eventually elicited an apology from then President and CEO Patricia Mitchell: “I want to acknowledge and apologize for the hurt that presenting this work has caused.” The Ordway’s ethics have been called into question more recently by organizations such as Mu Performing Arts (this was covered by Marianne Combs in her article Smaller, diverse groups swim against arts-funding tide.) If the Ordway is truly trying to reach our communities, it is time to listen to us about how these issues can be addressed and eliminated.

We wish the cast of West Side Story a successful run. Moving forward, we hope the Ordway, Teatro del Pueblo, and Star Tribune recognize and embrace the incredible wealth of talent of our Twin Cities Latinx community. We also hope James Rocco, Al Justiniano, and Rohan Preston continue to discuss this article with us because the only way to true community empowerment is by working together through conflict and disagreement. We invite all of you to join us in a panel discussion on Monday June 5th to expand on this letter (more details to follow). We look forward to the opportunity to develop real partnerships, exhibit our talents, bring authenticity to the stage, and help institutions like the Ordway be proud to showcase local talent in order to combat the larger issue of systematic exclusion.

In this together,

The Alliance of Latinx MN Artists (ALMA)
AllianceofmnLatinxartists@gmail.com

#RULooking?’