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BWW Review: In Lauren Yee's CAMBODIAN ROCK BAND, Music Spits In The Face Of Oppression

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Family secrets, political history, moral dilemmas in the face of genocide and loud, kick-ass rock tunes mix terrifically in Lauren Yee's gripping and (for this reviewer) informative new drama Cambodian Rock Band, an often horrifying, but ultimately exhilarating reminder that if there's one thing totalitarian regimes fear, it's artists.

BWW Review: In Lauren Yee's CAMBODIAN ROCK BAND,  Music Spits In The Face Of Oppression
Joe Ngo, Abraham Kim, Courtney Reed, Jane Lui
and Moses Villarama (Photo: Joan Marcus)

"Welcome to Cambodia, 2008!," greets Duch, our host for the evening, played with a devilishly sardonic tone by the always-intriguing stage treasure Francis Jue. "The jewel, the pearl, the Detroit of Southeast Asia. The lost cause of lost causes!"

We've just been treated to a raucous opening sung and played by The Cyclos, which Duch tells us is "from their first, last, only album, recorded in Phnom Penh, April 1975. A tape that, like so much of Cambodia's music of the time, no longer exists."

We'll eventually find out that, in Yee's mix of fact and fiction, the song was recorded just before the announcement that American troops had left Cambodia, leaving its citizens at the mercy of the invading Khmer Rouge. But first Duch informs the unaware that he is the former math teacher who supervised the torture and execution of over 20,000 prisoners sent to S21. As scripted by Yee, the character claims to have been a victim of circumstance, trying to survive by being an insignificant cog in the works until his despicable role was thrusted upon him.

In 2008, Neary (Courtney Reed), an American lawyer of Cambodian descent, is in Phnom Penh as part of the team preparing the case against the now 66-year-old Duch, who was living incognito for decades before a trail of evidence led to his arrest for crimes against humanity.

Neary is frustrated that some of the seven known survivors of S21 can be considered unreliable witnesses.

"The most vocal survivors are also the ones who have the most to gain by Duch's conviction. Duch walks and what happens to them? Who buys their book, who hires them for speaking engagements?"

But the discovery of evidence indicating the existence of an eighth survivor revitalizes her case.

When Neary's Cambodian-born father Chum (Joe Ngo), who has never shown much interest in his daughter's career, suddenly shows up in town, he opines that the trial is a waste and prefers to enjoy time with her doing touristy things like visiting a spa where starved fish nibble the dead skin off customers' feet.

BWW Review: In Lauren Yee's CAMBODIAN ROCK BAND,  Music Spits In The Face Of Oppression
Francis Jue (Photo: Joan Marcus)

When the play flashes back to the 1970s we see that Chum was a guitarist for The Cyclos, who played their last song together, alone in a recording studio, upon the realization that they must all flee for their lives. Decisions made by him and a bandmate friend have haunted him for thirty years. Like many who survive the violence of war and abuse, Chum doesn't like to talk his experiences, but his silence contributes to a generational gap in communication and understanding.

Director Chay Yew deftly handles the play's tricky shifts from historic drama to cute comedy to dark humor to vibrant bursts of musical defiance. Along with Ngo's portrayals of Chum as both 21st Century father and 1970s guitarist, four actors double as 2008 characters and band members, with Moses Villarama on guitar, Jane Lui on keyboard, Abraham Kim on drums and Reed sounding gorgeous on lead vocals playing a character named Sothea, named for the popular Cambodian singer Ros Serey Sothia, who disappeared during the genocide, with many theories and rumors about what became of her.

Songs once recorded by Sothia are part of the mixture of hard rock, surfer tunes, bubblegum, psychedelic and other genres that make up the play's song list. Other selections were written by members of the contemporary American band Dengue Fever, specialists in Cambodian music of that era, and by Cambodian stars of the pre-Khmer Rouge years Yol Aularong and Sinn Sisamouth, both of whom are presumed to have been murdered by the regime.

Though the songs aren't specific to the plot or characters, they are vital to the drama, providing the atmosphere of rebellious fun that spits in the face of the oppressors who tried silencing it forever.

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From This Author Michael Dale