By Colin Douglas
Playwright Lauren Yee first developed the scintillating Cambodian Rock Band at South Coast Repertory. It was part of the Crossroads Initiative, a challenge issued for writers to engage with the diverse communities of Orange County, for the purpose of create new theatrical works that would entertain, educate and inspire. Yee discovered something unique in Cambodian music, particularly its affinity toward American psychedelic surf rock.
In 1975, as the ruthless and bloodthirsty Khmer Rouge regime was coming to power in Cambodia, teenagers were donning bellbottoms and tie-dyed teeshirts to create their own quirky kind of pop music. Most of that music was quashed by the regime, who sought to quell the country’s intellectuals and artists. But a contemporary Cambodian band called Dengue Fever somehow retrieved a few of the songs, and it’s their music that Lauren Yee uses for the soundtrack of her unusual historic play.
The drama opens with a concert given in Phnom Penh by a 1970’s band who call themselves Cyclo. Sothea is the lovely lead singer, and she’s backed by fellow musicians Pou, on keyboard, Rom, on drums, Leng, on lead guitar and Chum, a bass player who the audience will keenly come to know and care about deeply. The six multitalented actors who portray the members of Cyclo sing and play their own instruments; but these musicians also brilliantly double as the main characters of the story.
The play flashes ahead to 2008, and the audience is left somewhat confused, wondering exactly what kind of play they’re seeing. Is this a musical? Is it a comedy or a drama? The snarky, anonymous emcee doesn’t help very much, asking the audience, “Are you confused? Ha! Welcome to Cambodia!”
Then, in the scene that follows, Chum reappears, but now he’s thirty years older, wearing glasses and a Hawaiian shirt and carrying a suitcase. He’s a proud father, arriving unannounced in Cambodia to surprise his daughter, Neary, and to persuade her to return home with him. Neary is an intelligent, American-born young woman who’s been carefully working with colleagues to build a case to prosecute a most heinous Khmer Rouge war criminal. The deplorable is a former math teacher named Duch. He became the merciless warden of the infamous Cambodian prison, S-21, in which thousands of men, women and children were relentlessly tortured and put to excruciating death.
Chum shows a sense of humor, especially with his daughter and her boyfriend, Ted. There are many laughs as he tries to convince his daughter that she’s wasting her time in Cambodia. Chum feels that bringing Khmer Rouge war criminals to justice isn’t worthy of Neary’s acumen. However, as the play continually flashes back and forth between the 70’s and the 21st century, we witness firsthand what happened to Chum and his bandmates during their horrific past, and the intensity of this provocative play-with-music continually grows powerfully unrelenting.
Marti Lyons has done a masterful job directing this visceral, gut-wrenching production. Yee’s play is a hybrid of history, politics, music and drama. It asks the question: When faced with the unimaginable, what would you do to survive? Lyons has skillfully integrated all of these elements in this award-worthy production that grabs the audience by the throat and never lets go. She’s brought excellent, star-making performances out of a gifted cast, and staged her production intimately within Yu Shibagaki’s versatile, industrial-looking scenic design. The performance shifts with emotion and concert spectacle, thanks to Keith Parham’s evocative lighting design. Kudos also go to Matt MacNelly for his exciting music direction.
Greg Watanabe is unbelievably moving and magnificent as Chum. Shifting seamlessly between the past and the present, Watanabe’s Chum is the heart and soul of this production. At first, he wins over the audience with his dorky fifty-year-old father barging unexpectedly into his daughter’s world. But, as his story progresses, he breaks our hearts with what he has to endure in order to survive. This actor is so completely commanding, there’s got to be an award awaiting this courageous, indomitable performance, if not the entire production.
Exquisite Aja Wiltshire, a familiar face with the Hypocrites, Porchlight Music Theatre, Kokandy Productions and many other Chicago venues, is terrific as Neary/Sothea. She portrays an independent, spirited scholar who’s pursuing the path she feels is right, and confused by her father’s reluctance to support her decision. As Sothea, Wiltshire also gets to shine musically every time the play shifts to the past. The star of both Twelfth Night and Vietgone at Writers Theatre, the multi-accomplished Matthew C. Yee is absolutely wonderful in the dual role of Ted and guitarist/singer Leng. The journey Yee takes, from rock star to prison guard is as poignant and shattering as anything this actor has ever taken. (It should be noted that Yee can be seen through April 21, after which Christopher Thomas Pow, takes over the role.) Artistically gifted Eileen Doan and Peter Sipla provide backup on keyboard and percussion as Pou and Rom, also playing additional supporting characters.
Rammel Chan makes his auspicious debut at Victory Gardens as Duch. Recently seen at Writers, the Goodman and at Steppenwolf Theatre, Chan is comedic one minute and frighteningly cool and cruel in the next, as the icy warden of S-21. He also pops in and out of the musical numbers, as well, particularly at the end of the play. In many ways, Chan’s role is similar to the Emcee in “Cabaret,” sometimes funny, more often frigid and calculating. Here is another accomplished local actor to keep an eye on, as he’ll undoubtedly be seen in many more productions around Chicago.
This richly layered play, part musical, part drama, is a testament to the resiliency and power of the artist and the art he creates. It’s a brilliant, exciting and soul-searching mixture of humor, brutal honesty and imaginative staging, bringing a somewhat forgotten chapter of history to light. This challenging, brilliantly produced production may be Victory Gardens’ finest in recent years, and it’s a definite must-see for serious Chicago theatergoers.
Victory Gardens presents “Cambodian Rock Band” through May 12 at 2433 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago. More information and thickets are available here.