Cambodian Rock Band
At the Victory Gardens Theater
By Dan Zeff
Chicago –For three years from 1975 to 1978 the Khmer Rouge government in Cambodia imprisoned, tortured, and killed an estimated two million men, women, and children in the country. It was a period that seems appropriate only for the history books, but playwright Lauren Yee has converted the horrors of the Cambodian genocide into “Cambodian Rock Band,” a brilliant, unorthodox play with music that will have audiences variously laughing and cringing, and ultimately cheering.
“Cambodian Rock Band” originated last year at the South Coast Repertory in California and is now installed at the Victory Gardens Theater. The first obligation of any critic reviewing the show is assuring the spectator that Yee’s play is essential viewing. The subject matter is painful and sometimes horrifying, but the brilliance of Yee’s unorthodox stagecraft and writing coupled with the sensational Victory Gardens production is something special. The show instantly ranks as one of the most rewarding viewing experiences available to local playgoers this season.
“Cambodian Rock Band” opens with a rock band on stage performing songs performed as a group of young Cambodian musicians. We learn that Cambodia had a rock music scene that flourished in the country until the Kmer Rouge took over with its dedication to destroying all vestiges of Cambodian pop culture, including rock music. One of the major bands of the time was called Dengue Fever and it’s that group’s music that primarily weaves in and out of the narrative.
Following the miniconcert, a man emerges from the audience, identifying himself as a character in the story who will become more prominent in the second act. He is listed in the playbill as Duch (Rammel Chan), pronounced for some reason as Doik. Duch comes across as a genial, humorous master of ceremonies who tosses off enticing bits of narrative that make no sense at first but later coalesce into an intelligible but brutal narrative.
The story finally kicks in with the appearance of a 26-year old Cambodian-American woman named Neary (Aja Wiltshire) who has been living in Cambodia for two years working for an international civil rights and humanitarian organization called the Center for Transformational Justice. Neary is part of a team assembling a war crimes case against Duch, a former math teacher in Cambodia accused of running a notorious prison camp that exterminated 20,000 Cambodians. Only seven prisoners survived the camp.
Unexpected, Neary’s father Chum (Greg Watanabe) arrives from the family home in the United States to urge his daughter to return home to study law at Cornell University and forget the war crimes prosecution, which he claims will serve no purpose other than stirring up the pain of the genocide. Chum’s visit may be serious but the man is funny in a slightly goofy way and his presence on the stage gives the first act its predominantly light feeling. But in the second act, the play turns somber in its intimate exploration of the horrors of the prison camp in particular and Cambodian society in general as the international community, including the United States, looks the other way.
That’s as much of the story as can fairly be conveyed without turning the review into a series of spoiler alerts. The play offers plenty of food for thought amid all the play’s theatrics. There are plot surprises, a great deal of tension, some thought-provoking probing into the mind of a war criminal, and what it was like living under an illogical national reign of terror and how far an individual can morally go trying to survive implacable forces of evil. A persuasive case is also made for the value of art and artists as an essential part of a society’s culture.
While the live music doesn’t contribute much to the storytelling, it is very listenable mainstream rock, with inclusions of American rock (including a number by Bob Dylan) and Neary singing the various lyrics in both English and Cambodian. The theater offers ear plugs for patrons who feel the need for protection against the loud music but I didn’t think the decibel count was particularly high for typical live rock.
The musicians deserve to be heard without impediment, their work all the more impressive because they double as the major characters in the show and they play their own instruments—keyboards, guitar, bass, and percussion. They are all Asian and outstanding actors as well as accomplished musicians. The extended prison scene between Watanabe’s Chum and Chan’s Duch in the second act is chilling and hypnotic.
The world ;premiere production in California was directed by Victory Gardens artistic director Chay Yew but the Victory Gardens production is handled by local director Marti Lyons. She has done a superior job in fitting all the show’s stylistic, chronological, and thematic elements into a unified whole, getting performances of exceptional commitment from Watanabe, Chan, Wiltshire, and Matthew Yee (who plays Neary’s Cambodian boyfriend). On April 22, Christopher Thomas Pow replaces Yee for the remainder of the run. The other two members of the ensemble are Peter Sipla and Eileen Doan in multiple roles as musicians and actors.
Yu Shibagaki designed the faceless all-purpose set that credibly accommodates all the action, no matter what the time and place. Nova Grayson Casillo’s props designs are essential in locating the specific sites as are Izumi Inaba’s costume designs. Keith Parham designed the atmospheric lighting and Mikhail Fiksel the sound plan. Fight choreographer Matt Hawkins staged the single violent moment in the play with unsettling realism. Matt MacNelly is the music director.
“Cambodian Rock Band” is a major artistic event on the Chicagoland theater scene. It’s rare that a new play comes to town that works so well at all levels–script, acting, directing, and design (not to mention music). Lauren Yee has made a name for herself among the younger American playwrights of the new millennium but the creativity and writing chops she displays in “Cambodian Rock Band” move her into the top rank. And the Victory Gardens Theater has performed a public service in presenting her high risk and demanding play with such skill.
The show gets a rating of
“Cambodian Rock Band” runs through May 5 at the Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 North Lincoln Avenue. Performances are Tuesday through Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 7 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $32 to $65. Call 773 871 3000 or visit www.victorygardens.org.
Contact Dan at ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com. April 2019
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