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Cambodian Rock Band

Theatre Review by James Wilson - February 24, 2020

Moses Villarama, Joe Ngo, Courtney Reed, and Abraham Kim
Photo by Joan Marcus
From the late 1950s through the early 1970s, Cambodia had a booming pop music industry that churned out hit songs, merging traditional Cambodian styles with Western influences. With the rise of the brutal Khmer Rouge government in 1975, the music scene and artists were all but obliterated. This history is chronicled in the excellent 2015 documentary Don't Think I've Forgotten, which presents a moving portrait of the once-thriving culture as recounted by surviving musicians and performers of the era. Similarly, Lauren Yee's Cambodian Rock Band, currently playing at Signature Theater, draws on this painful past in a play that, like the referenced music, combines a number of different dramatic styles and theatre forms. To Yee's credit, it mostly works.

In an introduction to the play, Yee states matter-of-factly, "some of this really happened." A cross between documentary theater and political melodrama, Cambodian Rock Band integrates actual figures and historical events into a fictionalized story. The play revolves around Neary (Courtney Reed), a young American woman who gradually learns the truth about the buried backstory of her father Chum (Joe Ngo), who was a budding musician and political prisoner in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge era. (Yee may have been inspired by Cambodian French filmmaker Neary Adeline Hay, whose autobiographical documentary Angkar examines a similar father-daughter narrative.)

The play's flashbacks reveal that Chum (whose character is based on an actual political-prison survivor) and his bandmates, collectively known as the Cyclos, recorded a single album before the takeover by the genocidal regime. The rock group also comprises Chum's best friend Leng (Moses Villarama), Leng's girlfriend Sothea (Reed), Rom (Abraham Kim), and Pou (Jane Lui). The musicians have missed their opportunity to escape the country, and as artists and intellectuals, they are prime suspects under the Communists.

Joe Ngo and Francis Jue
Photo by Joan Marcus
At the height of the domination of the Khmer Rouge in 1978, Chum is imprisoned in S-21, a former secondary school (and currently a genocide museum) in the capital city of Phnom Penh. Overseen by the vicious Duch (Francis Jue), S-21 was the site of tens of thousands of atrocities, including torture, forced confessions, and executions. Chum, both in real life and in the play, is just one of a handful of survivors from S-21. Chum's dramatized and miraculous escape is a major plot point (the machinations of which will not be spoiled here), but it requires a good deal of the audience's suspension of disbelief.

Interspersed throughout the show are several musical numbers written by Dengue Fever and performed by the actors as the rock group the Cyclos. (Reed is the lead singer, and she is excellent. Mikhail Fiksel's sound design helps establish the impression of a 1970s rock concert.) The songs, with titles like "On Thousand Tears of a Tarantula," "Cement Slippers," and "Sni Bong," provide a flavor for the period before the genocide. The bubblegum-pop style, however, undercuts the emotional power of the prison scenes as well as the personal and national trauma exposed throughout the play.

Even more problematic is the use of Duch as the show's narrator/emcee. As played by Jue, the character is at first a petulant showman, who periodically sets the historical scenes and intervenes in the narrative arc. Unfortunately, he is neither creepy nor sinister enough to create an underlying sense of foreboding under the clouds of the inevitable political horrors. That is, his intruding presence is not as ominous or insidiously ingratiating as the Emcee from Cabaret, for instance. As a result, when Duch appears as the S-21 director in the second act, he does not pose a ruthless mortal threat to the political prisoners.

Directed by Chay Yew, the production moves swiftly, and, for the most part, the actors effectively and seamlessly transform into different characters or younger versions of themselves. The production receives outstanding support from Takeshi Kata's scenic design, Luke Norby's projections, and David Weiner's lighting design which effortlessly and effectively move the proceedings across eras and geographies, and onto a rock-concert stage. Linda Cho's costumes, especially in the outfits designed for the 1970s scenes, are also terrific.

As Chum, Ngo is moving in his scenes as a loving father, but both as a nerdy, young musician and as an exceedingly fussy middle-aged man, he applies broad strokes and cartoonish qualities. The play would benefit from a more subtle approach across the board.

Cambodian Rock Band is an important play in its efforts to bring to light historical events with which many people in the United States are unfamiliar (and for which the United States bears some responsibility in creating). In the end, though, the play, overstuffed with ideas and theatricality, does not pack the emotional wallop one might expect.

Cambodian Rock Band
Through March 15, 2020
The Irene Diamond Stage at The Pershing Square Signature Center (480 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues)
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