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Originally published Saturday, September 15, 2012 at 6:09 AM

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In 'Uncle Ho,' a Vietnamese immigrant's harsh, harrowing life is relived

Trieu Tran's one-man show, "Uncle Ho to Uncle Sam," is a harrowing account of his journey from Vietnam to successful life in the U.S. It's at ACT Theatre through Oct. 7, 2012.

Seattle Times theater critic

ADDITIONAL PERFORMANCES

'Uncle Ho to Uncle Sam'

Through Oct. 7, ACT Theatre, 700 Union St., Seattle; $15-$55 (206-292-7676 or www.acttheatre.org).
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THEATER REVIEW |

Actor Trieu Tran strides purposefully onstage at ACT Theatre. He bows to a tall altar to his ancestors, adorned with family photos, and lights a stick of incense. The flowery fragrance wafts into the audience.

Then Tran squares his jaw, and launches into one of the most harrowing autobiographies this critic has ever heard in a theater.

In "Uncle Ho to Uncle Sam," the world-premiere, one-man show he devised with his well-attuned A-list director Robert Egan, Tran zigzags among his native, war-torn Vietnam, his bleak, alienating, adopted home of Saskatoon, Canada, and the tough Boston streets of his adolescence.

In some respects, what Tran imparts is a classic immigrant's journey. Born just before the fall of Saigon, he flees the North Vietnamese with his mother and siblings for a North America of misty promise, liberty and prosperity.

En route, Tran endures hard times and tragic losses. And once in the U.S., he finds that blending into the proverbial "melting pot" of American culture is nearly impossible in a society clotted by bigotry — a nation of just "two races: Caucasians and everyone else."

Buoyed by a loving mother, this bright, gifted kid finds enough support and opportunity to rise above — to excel in school, fall in love with a supportive woman and Shakespeare's plays, and become a fine actor who sustains your attention on the ACT stage for 90 minutes.

This is no storybook saga, however. The toll of terror, grief, rage and brutality it exacts is nearly overwhelming. At every turn, Tran is hit with another crushing loss, in an unsparing string of horrors unimaginable to most of us.

By the time the teenage Tran finds a warped reflection of himself in Shakespeare's heinous King Richard III, we know why. Cursed by his father at birth, he spent much of his early life feeling abandoned, unloved by his volatile, brutal dad, and lashed to a cycle of vengeful violence.

Tran recalls that as a small boy, during an attack by bloodthirsty Thai pirates on the fishing boat his family used to escape Vietnam, he was challenged for the first time to "be a man." But what does that mean for a 6-year old, let alone a fatherless teen gang member, pressured by blood and betrayal to kill?

The narrative in "Uncle Ho to Uncle Sam," one can assume, is all true. And it is delivered by Tran with an intensity that intermittently slips into the cooling balm of self-deprecating humor, and hip-hop jive.

The show's relentless fury is an asset, and exhausting. The traumatic cataclysms of Tran's childhood are like land mines that detonate, one by one, with blistering force.

But the audience needs a chance to breathe in, to absorb such events. There could be more space here for that, for weaving in the telling Shakespeare motif, and for Tran's broader perspective on what President Nixon called "peace with honor" — rather than backloading it into to a rhetorical epilogue.

This is a rare opportunity to hear, from the source, how the U.S. miliary adventure impacted the people we were allegedly saving from Communism, and how we treat our disoriented, battered war immigrants once they're among us.

"Uncle Ho to Uncle Sam" is, in its debut, already a powerful tale of emotional and physical survival. With shaping and shading it could be easier to take in, yet even more meaningful.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

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