Ngo, Abraham Kim, Francis Jue, Jane Lui, Courtney Reed, and Moses Villarama
in Cambodian Rock Band Joan Marcus
By Eugene Paul
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?
Lauren Yee, atremble with her daring, starts out with a rock band.
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).
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.
Ngo and Francis Jue
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.