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Cambodian Rock Band

Joe Ngo, Abraham Kim, Francis Jue, Jane Lui, Courtney Reed, and Moses Villarama in Cambodian Rock Band Joan Marcus

Cambodian Rock Band 

                                             By Eugene Paul

When  as a vibrant, young playwright you try to encompass the horror, let alone try to make any sense, of the slaughter of two million human beings, you know you’re going to have to capture that essence – or try to – in human, human not inhuman, terms, and – how are you going to do it?

Playwright  Lauren Yee, atremble with her daring, starts out with a rock band.

 In Takeshi Kata’s brooding setting, director Chay Yew passionately sets a tone: a Cambodian Rock band, the Cyclos, who were sweating out their first album – their only album as it turned out – in 1975.In 1975, when rock bands still had melodies, when the sounds (thank you, Mikhail Fiksel) only reached shattering levels,  when the lights (thank you, David Weiner) blew through you,  and when  Cambodian rock band girl singers such as Sothea  undulated as only they could do (thank you glorious Courtney Reed).(Linda Cho did the aptly felt costumes).

Until disaster struck.

And shut them down in the middle of their second  number.  Duch (extraordinary Francis Jue) the smiling scythe of a man representing the Khmer Rouge, dreaded head of  S21, the immediate prison for 21,000 lost souls-only seven survived – commanded no more music, and the band collapsed. But playwright Yee was working magic and each member lived again.

Joe Ngo and Francis Jue 

Sothea, the 1975 enchanting singer, now in 2008 – playwright Yee weaving, weaving-as young  Neary,  an American investigator piecing together the huge Cambodian tragedy, focused in particular on Duch’s almost totally exterminated 21,000 human beings.  She has found a clue that there was an eighth prisoner who had also survived. Throughout, and here in 2008, director Chay Yew charges Duch, sardonic, triumphant, hiding in plain sight. He also  has  survived, but  untouched, flaunting his freedom. He cannot contain his triumph, he is here, there, on the stage, in the audience, mockingly playful, a constant torment. 

Neary is stunned when her father greets her.  She had left everything and family back in America two years ago to fight through this puzzle that has haunted her all her  life, and here he is, the father who wouldn’t talk to her about Cambodia, acting like a fool, wanting her to come home now, at once, drop this whole hopeless search. But there is something deeper. The eighth survivor, he looks like a younger version of Chum (remarkable Joe Ngo), her father. Instead of coming back to Cambodia to bring her home he has inadvertently fueled her search. Or is it inadvertent? When he is confronted by Duch, his reaction tells her all. He was that eighth survivor. But – how? 

And again, playwright Yee takes us back in time, this time in that prison, S21. Chum, the young guitarist, is imprisoned.  Assaulted. Beaten. At the hands and feet and gun of  Leng (Moses Villarama), his friend, his fellow instrumentalist in the band. Now his guard, his torturer. Reason?  Reasons?  Need none. Leng has to do what he has to do in order not to be like his friend, his prisoner. Yet he cannot keep himself from helping Chu and it costs him.  Duch takes over. Leng is to suffer for not making his prisoner suffer enough. And in a complicated scene spiked with humor and the unexpected, Duch, who brutally enforced the Khmer Rouge rules which included NO MUSIC, tortures Chum by demanding he play and sing for him. Alone. Basking in his own cleverness, Duch has overreached, and Leng and Chum escape. 

As the weight of anguished Cambodian history suffuses Lauren Yee’s play,  the inspired creation of the rock band leavens the story and every character in the band  becomes Cambodia past and Cambodia present.  Yee has found her way of grabbing us. We are her partners. Along the way, the songs of psychedelic Dengue Fever and another  strange American, Bob Dyan, , lend immeasurable aid.

Cambodian Rock Band. At the Signature Center, 480 West 42ns Street near Tenth Avenue. Tickets: $35-$70. 212-244-7529. 2hrs 25 min. Thru Mar 22.