While romantics continue to swoon over “Titanic,” others recall more recent seagoing tragedies. Under co-directors Hiep Nguyen and Hung Nguyen, performance art ensemble Club O’Noodles (the co-directors plus Ham Tran, Uyen Huynh, Mai Thanh Van, Minh Nguyen, Lisa Nguyen and Peter James Smith) tells the stories of these boat people, Vietnamese refugees in uneasy American exile.
Their “Stories From a Nail Salon,” at Highways, is a poignant, sometimes funny, slightly rough work about the dreary, frustrating life of Vietnamese Americans in American nail salons.
Sitting in front of a newspaper curtain with mannequin arms reaching down from the ceiling, five people silently file acrylic nails. Then the jabbering starts. One may not understand every word or nuance as the dialogue moves quickly between English and Vietnamese, and the character Self (Hiep Nguyen) is a bit vaguely defined. Yet the piece works because it’s about feeling and alienation in another world where everything is not clearly understood.
These are “shipwreck survivors” who are haunted by nightmares. They’ve come from a country where the elderly and departed ancestors are honored to “a country that worship teenager.” Past lives and positions are dreams, for “reality is how to survive in America.”
Segments of poetry and movement and even musical satire are used to link together the individual stories. The choreography by Maura Nguyen Donohue and Yutian Wong has some wonderfully imaginative moments but also weaker linking moments, sometimes in the same segment. Christopher Sicat’s stage design and projected slides mesh well to create an emotional ambience, with the newspaper curtain used as a screen, a barrier and a shadow puppet theater.
“Stories From a Nail Salon,” Highways, 1651 18th St., Santa Monica. Today-Sunday, 8:30 p.m. Ends Sunday. $15. (213) 660-8587. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.