Chicago Theater Review: CAMBODIAN ROCK BAND (Victory Gardens)

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by Lawrence Bommer on April 13, 2019

in Theater-Chicago


It’s impossible to grasp a monster evil like genocide as a whole, to weigh it as so many calculable, tangible acts of human failure that yield a vast vileness and a terrible waste. To hold it hard, it has to be broken down into the choices and values of flawed or heroic human beings.

And then there’s another challenge: Confronting systematic executions and littered corpses, survival itself becomes a questionable drive. Are sheer endurance and persistence real counterweights to mass slaughter? What human creation is valuable enough to contest, even overcome, communal hate?

A magnificent answer comes in Cambodian Rock Band, a vital new work by Lauren Yee superbly shaped by Marti Lyons in a Chicago premiere by Victory Gardens Theater. It’s music. Music-makers can be silenced but not their art or their audience, future if not past. That, Yee shows, is cause enough to sustain survival.

In little over two hours, with huge help from hard-hitting songs by Dengue Fever and classic Cambodian “oldies,” Yee connects the vitality of a nation’s popular music in the ’70s, the shame of its descent into genocide, and the fear of death that shapes survival to a daughter’s quest for justice and a father’s emancipation from survivor guilt.

It’s 2008, thirty years after the atrocities of the millions-murdering Khmer Rouge infestation. Cambodian-American law student Neary (ardent Aja Wiltshire) is making her first visit to Phnom Penh to see the “killing fields” for herself and to prosecute crimes against humanity. Many were perpetrated by Duch (Rammel Chan, channeling the banality of evil), a math teacher turned bureaucrat-torturer. Perversely enough, Duch, a cunningly congenial criminal, also narrates Cambodian Rock Band. His toxic charm is hard but essential to resist.

Yee first establishes the rocky relationship between Neary and her defensively affable dad Chum (Greg Watanbe, initially jocular, then tragic). One of only eight survivors of the notorious death camp S-21 where 20,000 perished, in 2008 Chum is much more interested in recreation than revenge, enjoying the karaoke salons that would never have been permitted under dictator Pol Pot.

Chum is back in the capitol where his rock band Cyclos was swept to their doom, partly because Chum persuaded them to play a fatal gig on New Year  Eve 1975. Once happy, suddenly horrible, that’s when left-wing fanatics, exploiting the vacuum created by the American incursion and the end of the war in Vietnam, occupied Cambodia and massacred their fellow citizens.

In the wrenching second act, we too return to S-21. Now a prisoner and knowing that the Khmer Rouge despise everything intellectual or Western, Chum, pretending to be a banana-selling peasant, meets Ted (Matthew C. Yee), a former bandmate and now reluctant prison guard. Telling interrogations between Ted, remorseful but homicidal, give way to Chum’s fateful encounters with Duch himself, a commandant who envies the prisoners the innocence that lets them sleep. Much as a certain Jewish piano player softened his Nazi captor or Scheherazade is nightly spared by her story-telling skills, Chum is “kept for use.”

In theater life’s little victories matter a ton. These trenchant scenes expose the astonishing ambivalence and relativism that color life-and-death conflicts — and, amazingly, the power of music to bond enemies. You’d never expect that Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin’” could carry so much truth and reconciliation.

Rather than indulge in easy showdowns between good versus evil, Yee depicts a father and daughter who find common ground beyond vengeance or justice in, of all things, some nearly-lost cassette tapes of Cyclos’s crude rock concerts.

Despite its chronicle of carnage, this is a pacifying play where gallows humor fends off a legacy of butchery. Cambodian Rock Band ends as a raucous rock concert, complete with encore, that exuberantly pits music’s life-affirming enchantment over the poison of bad memories.

Marti Lyons’ seven actor-musicians (including Eileen Doan, Christopher Thomas Pow, and Peter Sipla) portray unremarkable souls who will not succumb to history. It’s beyond brilliant how much they drive home the saving humanity of this wonderful drama. Cambodian Rock Band delivers a kinetic testament about art as activism and music as morality. You have to be here.

photos by Liz Lauren
cover photo by Todd Rosenberg

Cambodian Rock Band
Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave
Tues-Fri at 7:30; Sat at 3 & 7:30; Sun at 3
ends on May 5, 2019 EXTENDED to May 14, 2019
for tickets, call 773.871.3000 or visit Victory Gardens

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

{ 1 comment }

Nikki Smith April 13, 2019 at 3:50 pm

As always, beautifully written. This is a production that demands a second look. Wish they offered discounts for repeat patrons

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