A few years ago, an aspiring young actor named Trieu Tran was sitting on a stoop in New York City during a rehearsal break, smoking a cigarette, talking to a director named Robert Egan. They got to discussing Tran's background. The director was surprised by what he heard.
Trieu Tran (his first name is pronounced "true") was born in Vietnam in 1975. He had visited his father at a Viet Cong reeducation camp, where the elder Tran was tied to a stake, beaten and bloody, while flies swarmed around the dead and almost-dead men around them. The boat that carried Tran's eventually escaping family to Thailand was attacked three times by pirates. He became a refugee in North America, where he and his father and much of the Vietnamese immigrant community struggled with racism, and then turned to gang stuff when they realized the legal world wasn't going to treat them as equals. Tran saw a lot of heroin-cooking and bloodshed up close and personal. Then he found hiphop, Shakespeare, love, more bloodshed, and much more.
This aspiring young actor smoking cigarettes on the stoop had some serious stories to tell. So, Tran said in a phone interview last week, the director encouraged him to begin writing about his life. Eventually, they started working together on Tran's solo show. The result is Uncle Ho to Uncle Sam, whose world premiere is currently running at ACT Theater, and it's a groundbreaking piece in which Tran talks us through his world and portrays dozens of characters, from old Vietnamese aunts to his (several) bewildered high-school principals. The set behind him is an ancestors' altar, surrounded by photos of people who've influenced the course of his life, from close relatives to Henry Kissinger. All of their ghosts—but especially the ghost of his father—weigh heavily on the entire show, and Tran has the strong presence and performer's gravity to make us feel it. Even where the show has some fat that should be trimmed—and hopefully it will have more development and more productions to trim it—Tran's rooted seriousness and charisma carry him through.
As artistic director Kurt Beattie says in his program notes, Americans tend to think of the Vietnam War in terms of themselves. And, as Tran notes in his performance, there are really two races in America: Caucasians, and everyone else. The combination of those two facts creates a crucible for young men like Tran. Strangely, his story—which includes him watching the murder of his father (in Canada) and struggling about how to avenge it, which leads him to Seattle—is not fully resolved. He told me he occasionally worries that at some performance, someone connected with his story will stand up in the darkness and shout at him, or worse. This tension is palpable in Tran's performance, which is a little like Spalding Gray's Swimming to Cambodia and a little like Marc Bamuthi Joseph's the break/s—it draws a connection between its audience and a Southeast Asian history we might prefer to forget, and between us and the immigrant struggles on our own streets we might prefer to ignore.
Maldoror, by the UMO Ensemble, confronts another kind of dire truth, though less successfully so. Inspired by the writings of 19th century pre-surrealist Le Comte de Lautréamont, it uses some familiar UMO tactics—id-driven clown characters, acrobatics, physical theater, atmospheric music, clever uses of set pieces—to drill down into what evil lurks in the hearts of men. The result looks like a bit of theatrical impressionism struggling to break out of its fuzzy cocoon and into clarity: gothy costumes that resemble Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas, 1950s film footage of small organisms (bug nymphs? Bacteria?) that look squirmy and gross, some light industrial music performed live onstage, squeaking and gibbering actors trying to be both clownish and scaaaaaa-ry. And perhaps it was simply the acoustics in the Northwest Film Forum (the show will be moving to West of Lenin), but it was very hard to hear the characters' impressionistic dialogue. Impressionism + hard to hear = especially confounding. Maldoror seems like a germ of a good idea that needs a little more cooking.