East Meets West

A fascinating documentary follows the contentious efforts of two theater troupes -- Vietnamese and American -- to stage a bicultural Shakespeare play

American-Vietnamese relations have been cordial at best and lethal at worst, but A Dream in Hanoi proposes other possibilities for cross-cultural engagement besides war. Written, produced, and directed by Tom Weidlinger, this beautifully realized documentary, narrated by F. Murray Abraham, follows a fall 2000 production of A Midsummer Night's Dream in Vietnam, but it has a Shakespearean sense of drama and humor of its own. The Vietnamese and American theater companies involved aspired to create a bilingual, bicultural version of the play; the result was a clash of wills and worldviews that left participants from both camps forever changed.

Colorful opening images of members of the two companies exchanging pleasantries hint at a smooth transition across literary and cultural lines, but problems soon emerge. Resentments develop into ruptures that threaten to capsize the entire production, with a lot of misery and anger generated on each side during the process. Vietnamese director Doãn Hoàng Giang shocks the Americans when he insists on adding an entourage for Puck consisting of “six masked drummer boy fairies.” The Vietnamese shrug at the inflexible Western theater types: “Americans want a script even for a soccer match!” Even the Vietnam Ministry of Culture and Information, which had sponsored and encouraged the project (supposedly to teach the Vietnamese how to make money from art), abruptly boots the group out of its venue and forbids them to sell tickets.

Yet A Dream in Hanoi is no gloomfest, largely because of its engaging cast and its discovery of commonality in chaos. Contentious meetings, troubled rehearsals, and tearful harangues balance with shared laughter at a joke well played or a bond over the common hatred of the costumes. As in the play, this film's “characters” awake from their dream with everything right again.

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