Review: “Cambodian Rock Band”

Aja Wiltshire and Greg Watanabe.(Photo by Liz Lauren)


Where: Victory Gardens Theater,
2433 N. Lincoln Ave.
When; through May 5
Tickets: $32-$65
Phone: 773-871-3000

Theater critic

Americans probably don’t think much about Cambodia nowadays. Those of us who are old enough may remember the fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge in 1975 and the four years of genocide claiming millions of lives. Or maybe we’ve seen the 1984 film, “The Killing Fields.” Other than that and historic temples like Angkor Wat, the country is barely on our radar.

Lauren Yee’s “Cambodian Rock Band” is designed to change that—and succeeds. Part play, part rock concert, and packed with humor and pain, it brings to life a complicated immigrant story that tackles still relevant issues ranging from the danger of apathy in the face of tyranny to how far it is moral to go to survive.

Yee also spotlights the power of the arts in general, and music in particular, to persist in the face of disaster, to bridge seemingly insurmountable divides, and even to heal. That’s where the rock concert comes in. Featuring songs by Dengue Fever, a Los Angeles-based band founded in 2002 to cover classic Cambodian pop and rock, the two-hour show begins and ends with music and incorporates lots in between. Most is in Khmer, with some in English, including original compositions.

Called “Cyclos,” the fictional band is made up of the actors, who not only play instruments but also take multiple roles as the action switches back and forth mainly between the mid-1970s and 2008. Director Marti Lyons manages to keep it flowing comprehensibly at Victory Gardens; the theater’s artistic director Chay Yew directed the world premiere at South Coast Repertory Theatre in January 2018 and is heading a West Coast tour.

The dramatic part of the evening begins with an amiable, humorous, smooth-talking narrator interrupting the band, getting off a few jokes, giving us some background, and announcing that he’ll become more important later on. He doesn’t tell us his name, but we soon learn that it’s Duch (Rammel Chan), pronounced “doik,” and he’s the villain of the piece—the former math teacher who became head of the Khmer Rouge’s infamous S-21 secret prison where only seven of 20,000 inmates were found alive.

Next, we meet Neary (Aja Wiltshire, who is also the band’s chanteuse) in 2008. Born in the U.S., she came to Cambodia two years earlier and has been deeply involved in a project to bring Duch to trial for his crimes. As part of this, she’s been trying to track down the identity of a man in a photograph found at S-21, because he may have been an eighth survivor. Her motivation for all her work is a desire to achieve some justice for her father Chum (Greg Watanabe), who immigrated to the U.S. in the 1970s but refuses to talk about his past.

While Neary and her boyfriend Ted (Matthew C. Yee; replaced April 22 by Christopher Thomas Pow) are getting ready for an event, who should show up by surprise? Chum. Looking like an awkward tourist with his backpack, and speaking broken English, he at first is vague about his reasons for coming and eager to enjoy local attractions like the “fish spa.” But it quickly emerges that he wants Neary to return to the U.S. and go to law school at Cornell, even if it means leaving Ted.

Without giving too much away, the bulk of the plot focuses on Chum’s experiences starting on New Year’s Eve 1975, his love of music, and why he hasn’t wanted to talk about any of it. To say he suffers from survivor’s guilt would be an understatement. He also has a strange and unique relationship with Duch. In the end, though, there’s a mutual understanding and hopeful rapprochement between father and daughter that’s quite moving.

The script does have a couple of drawbacks, however. It tends to become rather didactic, with key points driven home long after we’ve grasped them, Also, a couple of crucial revelations are telegraphed, or at least they are in this production, though this may be intentional.

The overall mood is lighter in the first act and turns somber for most of the second. The entire ensemble is excellent, but the standouts are Watanabe, who makes both the older and younger Chum memorable, and Chan, whose Duch is at times disturbingly sympathetic. Besides Wiltshire and Yee, who also portrays young Chum’s band mate and best friend Leng, the others are keyboardist Eileen Doan and drummer Peter Sipla, who play minor roles, too.

With the help of Keith Parham’s lighting, Yu Shibagaki’s scenic design easily converts from a low-budget concert venue or recording studio to a stark prison and other locations. Credit for the costumes goes to Izumi Inaba. Music director Matt MacNelly and sound designer Mikhail Fiskel deserve thanks for making the music loud enough to be convincing but not so loud that I needed the earplugs offered to audience members.

Two final notes. “Cambodian Rock Band” is being presented with City Theatre Company in Pittsburgh, PA, and Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell, MA, and goes on to those theaters in the fall. And Dengue Fever is giving a special concert here at Lincoln Hall, 2424 N. Lincoln Ave., on May 1.