Rating: 3.5/5 stars
Halfway through fu-GEN Asian Canadian Theatre Company’s production of A Perfect Bowl of Phở, actress Kenley Ferris-Ku appears onstage as a waitress in war-era Vietnam. She delivers a monologue that is informative and sincere, telling of how she served phở to American soldiers by day and hid Việt Cộng soldiers in the attic by night. It is a monologue about the Tet offensive and the legacy of the restaurant that hid those soldiers. It is also a monologue about phở itself. For this reason, it serves as a good entry point to the show, and it is as near to perfect as this ‘phở show’ gets. Ferris-Ku’s performance is confident and firm, and playwright Nam Nguyen’s dialogue is no less powerful.
The scene is also unlike anything else you’ll see in a show filled with meta-theatrical gags, lightning-fast rap numbers, and dialogue that jackhammers at the fourth wall.
Phở is not so much a distinct narrative as it is a variety show honouring the eponymous dish, with every cast member skillfully juggling several roles, occasionally even trading places with one another. Tying it all together is the arc of the playwright himself, played — mostly — by a wry and witty Kenzie Tsang, as he works out the show from its inception to the final product.
The audience is made to feel like what it is seeing is a work in progress, which isn’t entirely false. First showcased at U of T’s 2017 Drama Festival, fu-GEN’s production is the third iteration of the show — each one markedly different from the last. Questions of what the show is even about and whether it’s getting its message across are discussed openly onstage.
Yet, rather than bringing in new dimensions, these moments can read as overly didactic lessons on dramaturgy and do more to bar the audience from engaging fully and critically with the show. As someone who knows admittedly very little about Vietnam, I think the show would benefit from more scenes like Ferris-Ku’s, and fewer tangents into self-doubt.
In a show that does a brilliant job of being simultaneously entertaining and educational on the subjects of Vietnamese culture and history, Phở triumphs when it is sure of itself.
Watch as an extremely outgoing little girl (Meghan Aguirre) unleashes a lyrical torrent about bringing phở to school for World Cultures Day and you can’t help but be mesmerized. Watch as a white devil of a trendy phở chef (Brendan Rush) tears off his shirt to squeeze lime juice over the pentagram on his chest and you’ll be peeing yourself with laughter. Watch — or more accurately, read — an unflinching experiment in exposition as a gruesome story of Vietnamese refugees set adrift is projected onto an otherwise motionless stage and you will marvel at the risks that this show is willing to take with its material.
Despite its occasional missteps, there is no denying that A Perfect Bowl of Phở is a compelling piece of experimental theatre that you don’t want to miss. This latest iteration is the strongest yet — a good sign for the future if it’s as much of a work in progress as it claims to be. This show may indeed be well on its way to becoming a perfect bowl of phở.
A Perfect Bowl of Phở and Fine China are playing as a double-bill at the Factory Theatre until February 10.