Let’s get the name out of the way first of all. A O Lang Pho is Vietnamese for ‘A Village in Pho’, Pho (pronounced ‘Fa’) and most likely relates geographically to the Nam Định Province in the southeast of Hanoi, where the popular soup we know of today originated.
And so the production is set in a rural environment that is disrupted by progress as it begins to evolve into a bustling city.
As members of the audience make their way to their seats, the pre-recorded sounds of rivers running and birds chirping is played in the background, exponentially growing louder as more and more people enter the theatre, contributing to the muffled din.
Once settled and with lights down, a singular dancer appears spotlighted on stage, precariously spinning on top of what looks like a giant mushroom but is actually a great big pod constructed of sturdy bamboo. The spotlight is switched off again and in pitch darkness we hear bumps; strange dramatic movements going on.
With lights on again, suddenly there are more dancers, jumping about from pod to pod and using these as handy props (imitating tortoises one minute, shields against battle the next).
Now, for a simple shaped prop, the pod actually resembles something deeper for by the end of the show these have been destroyed, leaving only hoops and shards of bamboo for the dancers to work with – a symbol, perhaps, of the destruction of progress to our natural environment while also displaying the strength of human nature in its persistence to cope with chaos and change. Indeed, by the end of the show, when all 20 performers give a loud shout of ‘A! O!’, they sound very pleased with themselves having triumphed over chaos, construction and the proverbial fall-out.
In between curtain up and an ending framed by postmodern deconstruction, all manner of hustle and bustle goes on in ‘Pho’ town. We see the construction of buildings and bridges in a scene that looks like a giant lifelike version of Donkey Kong, followed by a kind of Rear Window-like perspective of urban life at large: couples enjoying romantic dinners here, an aerobics class and gym sessions going on there, with plenty of noisy ‘road traffic’ in between.
In effect, the dancers become actors, and pretty good ones at that considering the bare minimum props they have at their disposal and the language barrier between entertainer and audience.
All the while, traditional Vietnamese music (also known as ‘Cai Luong’, or modern folk opera) gives way to funkier beats and a fresh take on hip-hop. The giant pods – and a batch of smaller baskets thrown in for good measure – are ingeniously re-purposed to also represent creatures such as ostriches (the Vietnamese actually use these big birds for transport, often seen riding on their backs).
With the dancers-come-actors pulling off stunts such as tight-rope walking (albeit on slim bamboo poles rather than rope), trapeze and juggling (tens of props criss-crossing through the air at once, not one of these being dropped), the theatre involves into a circus of sorts; a kind of mini Cirque du Soleil but with more compacted oomph.
In sum, A O Lang Pho is genre-bleeding theatre at its best, where dance and drama, comedy and acrobatics interweave beautifully, thanks to the sheer stamina of its performers whose minds can multitask far better than the average artist.
Ten out of ten for uniqueness, five stars for freshness, and full marks for an awesome, adventurous night out. Antonino Tati
‘A O Lang Pho’ is on at the Regal Theatre, Subiaco, as part of the Perth International Arts Festival until February 25th.
Tickets are available through www.perthfestival.com.au.