nytheatre.com review by Amy Lee Pearsall
March 18, 2011
On the heels of International Women’s Day, Pan Asian Repertory Theatre offers We Are, a collection of stories in English and Vietnamese dealing with the unequal treatment of Vietnamese women in their society. Filled with inconvenient truths, Nguyen Thi Minh Ngoc’s production hit several bureaucratic snags en route to its American debut, complete with confiscated music tracks and two Vietnamese guest artists denied permission to travel. Author, director, and actor Minh Ngoc indicates in the program that the subject matter of this production is so controversial, it cannot hope to receive a staging at home.
It is then perhaps not surprising than Minh Ngoc has created a story about an Asian American screenwriter (Thái-Hòa Lê) who journeys to Vietnam in search of fiscal backing for a script about the treatment of women in his homeland. The film producer visited (Tienne Vu) has been specifically chosen on account of the fact she married abroad and has done quite well for herself, though her hard exterior leaves the audience to wonder if her success was so great after all. We discover the word Kieu, often used as a euphemism for prostitute. The term hearkens back to an old tale of Thuy Kieu, a courtesan who sacrificed herself at the hands of a military commander in exchange for her father's freedom. These days, Kieu is used most often to refer to women who make the sacrifice of marriage or servitude abroad as nannies, housekeepers, or caretakers in order to provide for their families in Vietnam.
We are treated to a traditional Vietnamese presentation of the tale of Thuy Kieu, complete with flowing costumes and magnificent stage makeup. Regrettably, it is translated into English simultaneously by other actors standing on stage reading from binders, rendering it impossible to hear either the translation or the Vietnamese being spoken. Projected subtitles on the blank back walls of the theatre would have been a much appreciated adjustment for the Vietnamese portions of this production. There was, blissfully, a moment where Leon Lê and Ngoc Dang were allowed to sing and perform in Vietnamese without being talked over, at which point I was able to completely give in to the enjoyment of their heartfelt performances.
Nancy Eng offers an energetic and welcome comedic break as a nanny for a once- formidable Chinese businessman now paralyzed. Chantal Thuy creates a touching portrait of a woman who wants to be a good wife but finds herself in a loveless marriage in Korea to an emotionally abusive man. Minh Ngoc gives an inspired performance at the end of the show in Vietnamese as a retired stage performer who now only performs for herself, but it was unclear as to how this character’s story or her performance of a retired female general fit in with the others.
It is feasible that many things in this story were lost in translation; it is also possible that some aspects of the play would be better cut for Western audiences. A formal introduction of the screenwriter at the top of the show is not needed and could easily be dropped. There is a recorded song with vocals that the actors sing along with for no apparent reason. The action on stage during the song does nothing to further the plot and the effect is not unlike listening to someone attempt to sing along with the radio. Compounding this unfortunate experience was the later discovery that some members of the cast could actually sing quite well. Several sound cues could be more entertaining were they better timed and perhaps better chosen. I was also confounded as to why a bottle of milk set out on a table was not opened and poured into a cup, but instead remained closed and was mimed as being poured. As I saw the production on opening night, I am hopeful that these issues will work themselves out.
Strengthening and perhaps reworking the transitional bits between the vignettes could assist the flow of the piece. I was also at a loss as to what this male screenwriter’s personal stakes were in regards to producing a script about the treatment of women. Fleshing out the story of this pivotal character’s search for his familial roots throughout the story instead of throwing it all into one climactic scene would have made the entire play much more effective. As it stands, set designer Kim Tran’s bits of diaphanous white fabric precariously tie the story together, acting as a mourning shawl, a noose, a lock, a child's dress, and finally a river flowing out to the audience.
We Are offers a glimpse into a world that many of us have never seen, and one that many do not want us to see. It succeeds in the aspect of informing its audience; however, some further workshopping of this piece could increase the story’s urgency and heighten its impact. As a bit of artillery in the battle for equal rights for women everywhere, it would be well worth the effort.