All the world’s a stage, and the complex relationship between the United States and Vietnam is taken to the floorboards in “A Dream in Hanoi,” a tremendously moving record of the first collaboration between theater companies from both countries. Heading for Mill Valley and Hawaii fests, lovingly crafted pic is likely to go the indie route, but could do some biz for a culturally astute outfit before ending up with pubcasters internationally.
Sparks of many colors fly when the Central Dramatic Company of Hanoi and Portland, Ore.’s Artists Repertory Theater join forces in Vietnam to stage a polyglot version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” complete with ballet dancers and onstage musicians. The former enemies are well received, and extended footage of their travels in and around Hanoi gives a strong flavor of the region.
Still, culture shock sets in, especially when it comes to the duplication of key positions, with Allen Nause directing the Americans and Doan Hoang Giang handling his countrymen. The thesps get on well, but the Viets are used to easier workdays and are shocked by the physical boldness and easy intimacy of the Yanks, with severe umbrage taken at one Kristen Brown, whose aggressively goofy Helena appears vulgar and overly masculine in their eyes. One young actor explains that Vietnamese are “shy by tradition, even on stage.”
Once the ice is broken, though, some pretty serious kissing happens in rehearsal, to everyone’s abashed amusement. Elsewhere, things aren’t so lovey-dovey. Creative differences abound, especially between Doan and producer Lorelle Browning, each of whom is attempting to stay true to diverse visions — one based on Asian heritage, the other holding Shakespeare sacrosanct. The Statesiders, lefties by nature, are revolted by interference by Communist officials, who won’t allow the troupes to sell tickets until censors, who refuse to come until opening night, have seen the show.
Other hints of political-historical context come when older locals recall youth spent dodging American B-52s, and when then-President Clinton and Hillary arrive in town and are rumored to be attending the first show in Hanoi’s spectacularly beautiful opera house. When that doesn’t happen, unfortunate events are set in motion, making more drama happen offstage than on.
Helmer Tom Weidlinger, a PBS vet who has previously documented the velvet conflict between Czechs and Slovaks, the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, and the roots of World War I, has an unobtrusive, everywhere-at-once style, with events neatly tied together by F. Murray Abraham’s low-key narration.
The play-without-a-play setting is given plenty of context, with many nice touches, such as the proliferation of Coca-Cola ads or a middle-aged Viet man who plays stunning Delta blues on his guitar. Pho Duc Phuong’s compositions for the stage serve double duty by accompanying the colorful travelogue segs of this very smoothly assembled pic.
Ending, which finds the Oregonians going home after three months and successful performances in both Hanoi and Saigon, is highly emotional, with even the most argumentative opponents hugging like long-lost family members. “We’ve earned the right,” says one American, tears in her eyes, “to call each other friends.”