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A Bard Reign Is Gonna Fall: American producer Lorelle Browning and her Vietnamese counterpart, Do Doan Chau, remake Shakespeare in 'A Dream in Hanoi.'

Totally Pucked Up

'A Dream in Hanoi' shows what happens when Shakespeare plays Vietnam

By Richard von Busack

ONE OF THE MANY magic things about life on Earth: you can never be sure whether conflict between people is due to cultural differences or whether some foreigner is being a genuine pain in the neck in some way that transcends national boundaries. This problem is just as applicable to people dealing with Americans, unaccustomed though we are to being foreigners. A Dream in Hanoi is an engaging Berkeley-produced documentary about a bilingual, multicultural version of A Midsummer Night's Dream, a collaboration between the Central Dramatic Company of Vietnam and the Artists Repertory Theater of Portland, Ore. The sardonic narration is by F. Murray Abraham, who witnesses scenes of backstage chaos he probably recognizes only too well.

Not only does A Midsummer Night's Dream seem an edifying choice for this project, but it's appropriate. With typical wisdom, Shakespeare anticipated the problem of harmonizing a group of egos. Remember the comedy-relief scenes of a group of amateur actors being tamed into a performance of Pyramus and Thisby, and how, with difficulty, the actors are herded away from underacting and overacting alike? It's a diagram for what happens in Hanoi. Accusations of lack of respect and sensitivity fly between the Yankee producer Lorelle Browning and the play's director, Doãn Hoáng Giang.

The seemingly unpolitical activity of acting Shakespeare is soon politicized by the North Vietnamese government; here's as doughty a group of bureaucrats as ever survived the fall of Communism. The bureaucrats bait the troupe with a prime location: a huge wedding cake of a Frenchified opera house. Then they switch to the play's final venue: a marble-lined Stalinist sarcophagus called the Vietnamese-Russian Friendship Hall. Later, the officials work a smooth Catch-22, preventing the sale of tickets to a play the censors hadn't previewed. These censors are important people who can't be bothered with an afternoon preview.

Giang enforces a Vietnamese tradition that a clown--in this case Puck--ought to have a half-dozen assistant clowns. (Is this a way of making sure, in a very poor country, that as many actors as possible get hired?) Giang appears autocratic to these Western eyes, but you feel for him having to deal with an obstreperous leading lady. I mean this in the nicest way possible, but if I'd been Kristen Martha Brown's director, I would have considered shooting her with a tranquilizer dart if that's what it took to get her to turn down her Helena. Even the costume designer takes her lumps: one actor describes her costume as "not just a yellow diaper, but a yellow diaper with a full load." Oregon touchy-feeliness meets Asian hauteur, and nerves stretch like rubber bands.

Eventually, however, as the documentary shows, the ensemble pares away the kind of acting that makes you wish theaters had escape pods. What begins with tears of frustration ends with sincere tears of farewell. This experiment in theater was worthwhile; it's twice as worthwhile to watch how it came together.

A Dream In Hanoi (Unrated; 91 min.), a documentary by Tom Weidlinger, opens Friday at the Towne Theater in San Jose.

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From the November 14-20, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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