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Theatre in Review: Cambodian Rock Band (Signature Theatre)

Courtney Reed, Moses Villerama. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Nobody loves a plot twist more than the playwright Lauren Yee: In the early stages of what looks to be an extremely bright career, she has displayed a pronounced taste for narratives that -- rather like the slick historical fiction that often finds its way to the best-seller list -- reach across decades, throwing together gaggles of apparent strangers and gradually revealing hidden connections among them. Her previous work, The Great Leap, covered two US -- Chinese basketball matchups, bringing together old rivals and unearthing a startling family relationship; the plot also hinged on a character being smuggled out of Mao's China at a time when such a thing was virtually unheard of. It's an undeniably entertaining play, but not an especially convincing one.

Her new work, the alternately rollicking and harrowing Cambodian Rock Band, is founded on another what-are-the-chances coincidence: Neary, a young Cambodian-American woman living in Phnom Penh in 2008, works for an NGO, pursuing the conviction of Kang Kek Iew, aka Duch, a former high-school mathematics teacher who, during the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror, oversaw S-21, a prison-cum-interrogation center where thousands of victims were tortured and worse; when the hellish place was finally shut down, there were only seven survivors.

For various reasons, few of the seven are likely to make effective witnesses at Duch's upcoming trial. As the play begins, however, Neary has unearthed evidence, including a photo, of an eighth survivor and is eager to track him down. At the same time, she is blindsided by the appearance of Chum, her father, who has maxed out his credit cards to fly in from America. Chum, a cheerful nag with a knack for undermining his daughter's achievements, wants her to return home for law school. If you're still wondering about the identity of that eighth S-21 prisoner, I invite you to put two and two together.

If the notion of Neary finding her long-sought-after witness in her own backyard seems awfully convenient, Yee has other, more engaging, twists ready to drop. The play's elfin, unnamed narrator is none other than Duch, who presides omnisciently over the action even before he becomes a player in the story. And then there's the matter of Chum's connection to the Seventies-era rock band, The Cyclos, whose ultimate fate is not made clear for some time. Neary always believed that her father had fled to the Cambodian countryside, escaping the worst excesses of the Pol Pot regime; now she is about to learn her family's complicated and wrenching secret history, which the prosecution of Duch threatens to bring to light.

The plot twists in Cambodian Rock Band aren't as blatant as those of The Great Leap, a sign that the playwright is moving in the right direction. Cambodian Rock Band is notable for its confident, if shocking, trajectory, from a wisecracking family drama with kicky musical interludes to a struggle for survival under the most pitiless of conditions. As we learn in a flashback, Chum grew up a member of Cambodia's bourgeoisie, which was connected to the country's French colonizers and was targeted for elimination by the Khmer Rouge; when he comes face to face with Duch, however, his musical skills provide his captor with the first sleep he has enjoyed in months. In the play's most mind-boggling sequence, Chum soothes Duch with the strains of "The Times They Are a-Changin'." (The juxtaposition of Bob Dylan with genocidal terror is unsettling beyond words.) The identity of the official deputized by Duch to oversee Chum's interrogation is another shocker; at this point, one begins to wonder if there are more than six people in all of Cambodia. It is, nevertheless, a powerful twist that sets up the terrible climactic choice Chum must make in order to live -- a choice that he spends the rest of his life trying to forget.

Because Yee guides the action so confidently, one is not likely to question the implausibilities that abound; also, the numbers, a kind of light psychedelic rock mostly by the band Dengue Fever, provide such entertaining distractions that one's questions are frequently diverted. And Yee certainly has a way with a line: I particularly liked the description of Phnom Penh as "the Detroit of the Southeast, the lost capital of lost causes," or Neary's complaint that, to Chum, she is "disappointment made flesh." The scenes inside S-21 bristle with the terrifying awareness that one might be wiped out at any moment, on a whim; their menace, rooted in the Khmer Rouge's truth-bending policies, is positively Orwellian.

Still, this material is so rich and troubling that one is slightly disappointed when it is seemingly resolved in a cure-all father-daughter hug. Chum is played for laughs for so long that the play doesn't fully take the measure of the damage done to him -- a lost opportunity, in my view. And while the rock band -- which plays a pivotal and poignant role in the story -- is generally welcome, it is allowed to linger too long. It is perfectly fine to bring The Cyclos back for an elegiac finale; it is a mistake to let it morph into a remarkably tasteless megamix with plenty of audience participation. Weren't we just hearing about the extermination of two million people? Imagine a rock-out, tambourine-banging finale to a play about the Holocaust and you'll see what I mean.

Still, Chay Yew's direction handles most of the play's shifts in tone with considerable skill. Among the cast, Joe Ngo does heroic work as Chum, a character too-broadly drawn at first, but who acquires many interesting shadings as the truth about his past comes out. Courtney Reed is appealing as Neary and Moses Villarama is compelling as an old friend of Chum's who finds himself at an impossible moral impasse. Francis Jue works overtime, alternating between charming and frightening as Duch, but the role surely is impossible: Even a Hannah Arendt might struggle to explain how a mild-mannered educator became a super-efficient mass murderer, only to sink into obscurity for decades.

The production is well-suited to a play that jumps back and forth between the seventies and 2008. Takeshi Kata's skeletal set accommodates at various times a collage of Phnom Penh street signs and a prison interior, along with a bandstand that moves up- and downstage as needed. Luke Norby's projections feature most prominently in a display of Duch's victims. David Weiner's always-precise work provides dramatic sidelight washes and an upstage wall of light for the rock concert scenes. Linda Cho's costumes strongly evoke the play's contrasting time periods. Mikhail Fiksel's sound design provides plenty of punch for The Cyclos' numbers while letting the rest of the play breathe.

Cambodian Rock Band plays to the playwright's considerable strengths, not least of which is her willingness to tackle big, intractable subjects from Asian (and Asian-American) history. And if at times she avails herself of so many narrative conveniences, her work is painfully aware that, thanks to the winds of war and politics, youthful dreams of rock-star glory can vanish overnight, landing on in a concrete slab at the wrong end of an interrogation from which there is no reprieve. Impressive, that. -- David Barbour

(2 March 2020)

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