Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
Cambodian Rock Band
In Cambodian Rock Band, a drama with music that opened this week at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, playwright Lauren Yee tells the story of a Cambodian father who fled his homeland during the genocidal reign of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, and his daughter who comes to Cambodia some 30 years later to assist in the prosecution of a Khmer Rouge war criminal. As with "Classic Albums," Yee does so by peeling away elements and stripping away our preconceptions of that time in history in order to overcome the horrific noise of two million murdered Cambodians to focus on a single, very human story. By slowly revealing the terrors the father, Chum (Joe Ngo), endured in S-21, a notorious Khmer Rouge prison/death camp, as well as the joys he experienced playing in a rock band (The Cyclos) with his friends, Yee gives us an insider's view of how ordinary people can behave heroically or villainously in times of stress.
Before you start thinking "this sounds incredibly depressing," Cambodian Rock Band is undeniably joyous and life-affirming. It's also filled with some brilliant music that brings to mind the 1960s-'70s surf-rock of bands like Dick Dale & His Del-Tones or Dengue Fever (who wrote some of the songs in this show), played by the incredibly talented cast, most of whom play multiple roles. It is also often incredibly funny.
The story shifts between 2008, when Chum shows up unannounced in Phnom Penh to encourage his daughter Neary (Geena Quintos) to come back home and go to law school instead of pursuing "the lost cause of lost causes," and the mid- to late-1970s, as the Cyclos make music even in the face of the rise of Pol Pot, who wants to cleanse the nation of all intellectuals and artists. The band, which includes Chum on guitar, Leng (Moses Villarama) on bass, Pou (Lane Liu) playing keyboards, Rom (Abraham Kim) on drums, and Sothea (also Geena Quintos) on lead vocals, rock the Roda Theatre with a half-dozen or more tunes, mostly sung in Cambodian. As musicians, the Cyclos will be in the crosshairs of the Khmer Rouge, though Rom is less concerned: "When did drummers become musicians?"
Although Francis Jue is brilliant in this role, I'm hesitant to say more about his character for fear of spoiling one of the twists in Yee's script. His role is as both a key player in the story and a sort of omnipresent observer of the action. With his winning smile and joyful physicality, Jue has long been one of my favorite actors, and his many skills are on display here: in one moment Jue's character is an utterly charming narrator, and in the next a foreboding presence whose searing gaze and brittle retorts are enough to curdle your blood.
As Chum, Joe Ngo is a skilled guitarist, but perhaps an even more skilled actor. The role requires him to play both a very young man and a sexagenarian. To accomplish this he physically and emotionally transforms himself so completely I almost forgot he was playing both roles.
At one point, Francis Jue's character tells us that "music is the soul of Cambodia." It may also be the soul of Cambodian Rock Band, but its heart is the tragic and redemptive story of the terrors of the killing fields as seen through the eyes of a father and daughter and the geopolitical events that simultaneously divide and unite them. Through the brilliance of Yee's storytelling and Chay Yew's direction, we get to go deep inside both the joys of rock 'n' roll and the terrors of totalitarianism.
Cambodian Rock Band runs through April 2, 2023, at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Roda Theatre, 2025 Addison Street, Berkeley CA. Shows are Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., and Wednesdays at 7:00 p.m. Matinees are Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Tickets range from $49-$123. For tickets and information, please visit www.berkeleyrep.org or call the box office at 510-647-2949.