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By Phil Hall | September 26, 2003

“A Dream in Hanoi” is a leisurely and pleasant documentary about a historic collaboration between the Artists Repertory Theater of Portland, Oregon, and the Central Dramatic Company of Vietnam to stage a bilingual version of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummers Night Dream” in Hanoi using a mix of American and Vietnamese actors.

Filmmaker Tom Weidlinger followed the unlikely but intriguing collaboration from start to finish, catching every exuberant high and teeth grinding low imaginable. Most of the problems came from the inevitable culture clash, ranging from trying to reign in free-thinking American acting to conform to Vietnamese social protocol to grudgingly surrendering the opening night to government officials and censors in order to gain their approval for ticket sales. The production called for an American and Vietnamese pair to direct, although the latter clearly ran the show–to the point of pruning away chunks of Shakespeare’s dialogue and even adding new characters in the form of a slapsticky sextet designed to support Puck’s shenanigans. Subtitles are used to help the local audience understand when the American actors are speaking English, although attempts are made for the Americans to speak some dialogue in Vietnamese and vice-versa.

“A Dream in Hanoi” is actually most intriguing when it moves beyond the theater to provide a glimpse of today’s Vietnam. We find a curious Hanoi where the digital 21st century (complete with Internet cafes) rests alongside an admittedly primitive culture (a quick scene of a street vendor with a cage crammed with ducks will ache any animal lover in the so-called developed world). A visit to a Buddhist temple offers a rare glimpse of how theology exists in a supposedly Communist country. Talk of the Vietnam War is mercifully brief, as members of the Central Dramatic Company of Vietnam calmly recall the hardship of defending their homeland from American bombing without exposing any rancor to the one-time enemies who are now working alongside them.

If anything, the 91-minute documentary could have easily been cut a good 20 minutes to tighten the pace, as it often seems to mosey its way along without a care in the world. A subplot involving a Frenchwoman in Hanoi trying to teach Western-style marketing tactics seems to belong in another film, and a false alarm subplot about the possibility of then-President Clinton attending a performance in Hanoi takes up more time than necessary (he didn’t make it to the show, although some Under-Secretary of State gets too much camera time gushing over the production).

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