By JK Clarke
For many of us, the most preferable way to understand an historical event or era is through historical fiction with dramatized narratives. Obviously, works of historical non-fiction are the most direct and, ostensibly, reliable. But many find that pathway dull or inaccessible. As such, it’s a safe bet that the extent of most westerners’ knowledge of the Pol Pot’s destructive and bloody reign in Cambodia comes from Roland Joffés’s masterful 1984 film, The Killing Fields. But now, in the form of Lauren Yee’s brilliant new play with music, Cambodian Rock Band (now playing at the Signature Theatre through March 15), there’s another view of this tumultuous era—one that will simultaneously warm and shatter your heart.
There’s a lot going on in this play, which jumps between 2008, 1975 and 1978 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The show is, in a sense, hosted by the band The Cyclos, who also figure prominently in the story. They are introduced by a man named Duch (pronounced “Doik”), also something of a narrator, who routinely breaks the fourth wall which no other character does. He seems nice enough, but foreshadows ominously that he figures prominently later in the story. And he certainly does.
The Cyclos are an upbeat, psychedelic surf-rock band (perfect period costumes by Linda Cho) who play songs by Cambodian musicians like Ros Serey Sothea and Sinn Sisamouth, though the vast majority are by Dengue Fever, a Los Angeles-based rock band (whose singer Chhom Nimol is well known in Cambodia and whose songs are a mix of English and Khmer). Apparently, American-style pop-rock was huge in Phnom Penh in the 1970s—the Detroit of Cambodia, says Duch, “in case you were not aware, music is the soul of Cambodia. It’s true!”
Jumping forward to 2008, we are introduced to Neary (Courtney Reed, who also performs as the lead singer of The Cyclos), a 26-year-old Cambodian-American who is working for an NGO (non-governmental organization) which is seeking to prosecute members of the Khmer Rouge (the communist government under Pol Pot, responsible for the Cambodian genoicide of two million people in the late 1970s and early 1980s). She is surprised by the arrival of her father, Chum (an excellent Joe Ngo), who has flown in, apparently, to dissuade her from continuing to work on the case. He had fled Cambodia as a refugee, but his involvement was more than his daughter ever realized. Chum is quite a character: an outsized, almost animated version of an overbearing Asian parent (the likes we’ve seen portrayed by the comic Margaret Cho); but before long we see that his demeanor is pure masque.
In the second part of the first act we see what led to Chum’s perilous life under the Khmer Rouge. He’d been the guitarist of The Cyclos, and a selfish decision led to his not escaping with his family—all of whom were slaughtered. When the happy-go-lucky band finishes recording their first album, we see their lives begin to crumble in what feels like an instant. The final song they record, ominously, is the made for Broadway, “Cement Shoes,” which proclaims, “And it weighs a ton . . . On me.” Indeed. As Act I ends, we hear rockets and machine gun fire as the Khmer Rouge enter Phnom Penh. Marching jackboots echo through the intermission.
Act II is almost a different play. Here is where Duch (Francis Jue, perfectly amusing and menacing at the flick of a switch) enters the story, running one of the most notorious and deadly prisons, S21—a former school, but now a death chamber. Chum has been captured and is being held as a spy. But not only does he discover old friends, but a softer side to Duch as well. Their interactions are powerful, heart-wrenching.
It’s difficult to tell the story without giving too much away. There are twists which some might see coming, but others aren’t so obvious. But it’s the overall drama and insight into an often sickening examination of human relationships. Collaborations with authoritarian tormentors are all-too-familiar to anyone who has studied historical accounts of genocide. And here it is no different. But under Chay Yew’s terrific direction Lauren Yee’s beautifully written play is too multi-layered and complex to allow for the outright condemnation of anyone’s behavior. Occasionally dialog is expositional, but it’s absolutely necessary to the story, as is the nearly two and a half hour run time, which flies by. It ends with a celebratory concert of sorts, a recognition of the resilience of the human spirit.
Cambodian Rock Band features delightful acting, particularly from Jue, Neary and Ngo, but with all the actors doubling as musically talented members of The Cyclos it’s particularly impressive. Abraham Kim is the band’s fabulous, hard-hitting drummer; Jane Lui the keyboardist (and as the music arranger) who also plays convincing “extra” roles; and Moses Villarama’s multiple roles and bass playing are solid.
While the spacious Irene Diamond Stage at the Signature Center is well built for concert-style performances, it lacks the intimacy from which the production might benefit. Nonetheless, Takeshi Kata’s rock band set in Act I and simple schoolroom set in Act II combined with David Weiner’s evocative, dramatic and purposeful lighting create an immersive environment.
Cambodian Rock Band is one of the best productions of the season. Powerful, provocative and yet delightfully entertaining, the sum of its parts is even more valuable. It provides us with an insight into a time and place that should never have existed, but the sort which regularly appears in different spots throughout history, around the globe. It’s an instructive lesson, one that perhaps we should be paying particularly close attention to right now. It weighs a ton.
Cambodian Rock Band. Through March 15 at the Pershing Square Signature Center (480 West 42nd Street, between Ninth and Tenth Avenues). Two hours, 25 minutes with one intermission. www.signaturetheatre.org
Photos: Joan Marcus