Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Playwright Lauren Yee has set up an immense challenge for herself: using the story of one family to recount the rise of the Khmer Rouge faction in Cambodia in the 1970s. The regime was responsible for the genocide of some two million Cambodians, including 90 percent of the country's musicians, before being removed from power in 1979. Between her sharply observant writing and a stunning physical production, she has succeeded here.
Director Chay Yew is working with a company of accomplished performers who know the material intimately and bring total commitment as they act, sing, and play instruments. As Neary (Brooke Ishibashi), the audience's guide, explains, "Music is the soul of Cambodia."
Neary, born in the United States to Cambodian immigrant parents, has come to Phnom Penh in 2008 as a representative for a non-governmental organization observing the trial of a Khmer Rouge officer for war crimes against prisoners. To her surprise, her father Chum (Joe Ngo) joins her there and tries to warn her not to dig too deeply into the past. These characters, along with a slyly witty narrator, Duch (Francis Jue), soon move the action back to the days before the Khmer Rouge came to power, when Chum was a guitarist in a socially conscious rock band, and Sothea (also Ishibashi) was the lead singer.
Yew has created such a tight ensemble that it's difficult to single out one performance, although Ishibashi is transcendent as a woman who understands the ravages of the past regime but doesn't realize what her own family had to endure. Ngo captures the character of both the young, ambitious man Chum was and the wary father who wants to keep the past in the past, while Jue has enough subversive charm that he keeps the audience from hating his character while being horrified by his actions.
Takeshi Kata has designed a clever set that incorporates a stage for the musicians to perform on (backed by David Weiner's arena-style wall of lights), along with room for the dialogue scenes.
Cambodian Rock Band runs through August 27, 2023, at Arena Stage, Mead Center for American Theater, Kreeger Theater, 1101 6th St. SW, Washington DC. For tickets and information, please call 202-488-3300 or visit www.arenastage.org.
By Lauren Yee