Wow, finally… a post about the theatre! A fitting choice for my 100th (!) post!

Theatre’s usually a dress-up time for me – the closest thing I could manage after 12 hours in my work clothes was jeans and a snazzy bow-tie (I have LITERALLY been waiting since I got to Vietnam to pull out the bow-tie!!), but I shouldn’t have worried. The house was packed with expats and visiting tourists in casual duds.

The visitors were there with good reason. The À Ố Show currently in residence at the Saigon Opera House brags that it’s changing the guidebooks, and they’re pretty much right on the money. That is no undeserved brag, my friends. This is an honest-to-god piece of art, and I enjoyed every second of it. If I hadn’t seen it’s artistic antecedents several times in America (Cirque du Soleil, you’ve gone and had a love child with Vietnam, didn’t you?) I would have had absolutely no idea where this came from.

As it turns out, the show was a blast. My inner theatre professional thought it was practically perfect in every way – funny, moving, beautiful, well-designed, well-choreographed and executed, thoughtfully-conceived, and an all around pleasure!

Click through for pics, the Opera House, and my thoughts…

Showtime was weirdly early: 6pm. This
is the front entrance of the Saigon Opera
House (Municipal Theatre). Fairly magnificent!

I’ll admit that I came in with low expectations. I mean, this is Vietnam – it’s not like there are a ton of enduring cultural institutions here, even in HCMC. Apparently all that stuff is in Hanoi. Kasia and I had gotten cheap tickets (about $25 USD) but had solid floor seats. The theatre was surprisingly small, given it’s outside profile, but I suppose all that support space has to go somewhere.

The show came with NO PROGRAM (a fact that I was a little ticked about, having just dropped a 5 hundo on it. Come on, À Ố  Show) so there was very little background information, no Director’s notes, no idea about the cast, or the performance, or what to expect… we went in blind, and, like I said, I didn’t really expect much except a nice night out with a friend going to a cultural landmark that I’d been dying to attend… and photograph.

History Time!

The building itself is a work of art. Built in 1897 and renovated on Saigon’s 300th birthday, in 1998, it has undergone many transformations. The style is French Colonial, and it anchors District 1 with style. It hasn’t always been a theatre, in use, or popular, though. This building has lived a full life.

The theatre’s facade was renovated on the occasion of the 300th anniversary of Saigon’s founding, in 1998. Pretty impressive, even at night. This is the North side of the building (the stage would be at the left end facing toward the right, if we could see a cross-section). Bikes.

The French colonists requested a theatre troupe in the olden times, otherwise known as the 1860’s. They played in a temporary location near the present day location. Amazingly, between the World Wars the entire cost of moving the troupes back and forth from France was borne by the city government. In 1944, however, the building was badly damaged by Allied bombardment of the Japanese, and was abandoned for almost 10 years.

There’s some truly splendid and well-maintained
examples of French Colonial sculpture.

Following the Geneva Accords (which, and I’m sad to say I had to look this up, divided Vietnam into two zones: the southern Republic of Vietnam and a northern zone, governed by the people of Việt Minh), the building was temporarily held French civilians from the North. The following year, 1955, the once-and-future theatre sat the Lower House of the State (later Republic) of Vietnam. After Saigon’s Fall in 1975, theatre and entertainment arrived home once more, and it’s been operating ever since.

Present Day Time!

Kasia and I met up on the steps at 5:45 (so early!) and made our way inside. It was bright and airy, the doors wide open to let the evening breeze in. The lobby display began to give us a taste of what we were in for… apparently, lots of bamboo? All the testimonials were in the vein of “Wow much wonderful!” and didn’t really give us a good idea of the content of the show. Something about Vietnamese life or something.

Everything used in the show was made of bamboo – it made for a pretty and effective lobby display.




















Theatre Nerd Time! 

The inside of the theatre was nifty and ornate. Lots and lots of marble and velvet, with motifs running around the gallery windows and balcony. It was much smaller than I thought! A very nice, cozy house. With A/C, thank the gods.

The whole theatre was much smaller than I expected.
Here’s the balcony.

The Arch wasn’t too wide, but it was deeper than it initially appeared. The piece took full advantage of the stage, which was nice to see. The staging was very effective.

Not a wide proscenium arch. Narrow and deep –
just like the houses here!

The show started 15 minutes late (!) but it was ok – these chairs were fantastic! 473 of them in the house today, compared to 800 when it was first built. Check out the detail. They’re a richer red than the low lights allowed me to capture.

473 hand-carved wooden seats… that were surprisingly comfortable!

Show Time!

A traditional Vietnamese bowl/boat (made that up).

Oh yeah… the show! Well.

It was a New Circus-type show: Cirque meets Vietnam. The first segments captured Vietnamese craft and athleticism using the bare minimum. The following pieces were taken straight from rural life – merchants carrying wares while crossing a river, small village life, and young love in the delta made up the core of this segment.

All photos from http://www.aoshowsaigon.com/
 © 2013 Lang Pho Entertainment JSC. All Rights Reserved.

It used exclusively bamboo for the set and the majority of the props. There were a huge number of woven bowl/boats, some as wide around as an actor all the way down to a few feet.

All photos from http://www.aoshowsaigon.com/
 © 2013 Lang Pho Entertainment JSC. All Rights Reserved.
These things were CRAZY STURDY. Performers were vaulting, bouncing, and tumbling all over these things. Sometimes while they were flat on the ground, and sometimes they perched up on an edge and bounced around. 
All photos from http://www.aoshowsaigon.com/
 © 2013 Lang Pho Entertainment JSC. All Rights Reserved.
There was also a performance with a 6 foot diameter bowl that had been half completed around the edges. A man got it spinning, then got in it and whipped himself around in circles, all over the stage. It was incredible. He just kept going! 
All photos from http://www.aoshowsaigon.com/
 © 2013 Lang Pho Entertainment JSC. All Rights Reserved.
Along with bowls – so many bowls – the performers utilized enormous, thick bamboo poles about 9-12 feet long. They scaled and balanced and climbed all over the place, mimicking everything from bridges and environmental scenery to water.
All photos from http://www.aoshowsaigon.com/
 © 2013 Lang Pho Entertainment JSC. All Rights Reserved.
All photos from http://www.aoshowsaigon.com/
 © 2013 Lang Pho Entertainment JSC. All Rights Reserved.
These bowl/boats also lifted into the air and spun around, with various performers using them to tumble, twirl, and spin on.
All photos from http://www.aoshowsaigon.com/
 © 2013 Lang Pho Entertainment JSC. All Rights Reserved.
All photos from http://www.aoshowsaigon.com/
 © 2013 Lang Pho Entertainment JSC. All Rights Reserved.

The second act was largely concerned with the ideals of Vietnamese. Industry and industriousness, inventiveness, and mythic animal humor were shown in several VERY funny segments. In one, the performers turned into frogs (with the baskets on their back) and hopped around, and in another segment there were three different levels of people that created a production line with performers flipping bowls back and forth with poles, feet, and hands.

All photos from http://www.aoshowsaigon.com/
 © 2013 Lang Pho Entertainment JSC. All Rights Reserved.
All photos from http://www.aoshowsaigon.com/
 © 2013 Lang Pho Entertainment JSC. All Rights Reserved.

This segment also took time for a very quiet piece that involved the split bamboo poles shown below. The way they’re constructed makes them emit an otherworldly hum when spun around quickly, and the result was mesmerizing.

All photos from http://www.aoshowsaigon.com/
 © 2013 Lang Pho Entertainment JSC. All Rights Reserved.
Much of the show as dedicated to wordlessly communicating the people and spirit of traditional rural life, but the final third took on city life, depicting characters and experiences that were distinctly Vietnamese but rooted in a more modern time. The directors chose to showcase some of the funniest scenes in this ‘cityscape’ – the result was a great hodgepodge of sketches of Vietnamese people, both inner and outer lives. This didn’t stop the tumbling, though, thank goodness:

All photos from http://www.aoshowsaigon.com/
 © 2013 Lang Pho Entertainment JSC. All Rights Reserved.

All photos from http://www.aoshowsaigon.com/
 © 2013 Lang Pho Entertainment JSC. All Rights Reserved.
All photos from http://www.aoshowsaigon.com/
 © 2013 Lang Pho Entertainment JSC. All Rights Reserved.
All in all, an incredibly enjoyable evening at the theatre. As I mentioned, I’m a little bit of a pessimist when it comes to theatre. There’s good theatre, and then there’s the other 75% of live shows, which fall somewhere between mostly competent and cringe-worthy. I had no idea what to expect, but I didn’t expect a lot, much less a world-class New Circus act that had so much to say about Vietnam.
The side of the cast after the show with their adoring fans.

If you get a chance to see this building and this show (there are also opera, ballets, and symphonies that perform here, if that’s more your cup of tea), I would jump at the opportunity. The cost is right and experience is a must. Support fine art in Saigon if you can!

Highly recommended!