Theater Review: CAMBODIAN ROCK BAND (Oregon Shakespeare Festival)

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by Tony Frankel on June 7, 2019

in Theater-Regional


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. When confronted with systematic executions and littered corpses, 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 Chay Yew at Oregon Shakespeare Festival. It’s music. Music-makers can be silenced but not their art or their audience. That, Yee shows, is cause enough to sustain survival.

In two and one half hours, with huge help from classic Cambodian “oldies” and the hard-hitting, fusion, surfer rock songs by Dengue Fever, Yee explores the vitality of a nation’s popular music in the ’70. She layers that with the shame of Cambodia’s descent into genocide and the fear of death that shapes survival. Yee then uses these to fashion a story about a daughter’s quest for justice and a father’s emancipation from survivor guilt.

It’s 2008, thirty years after the atrocities of the murdering Khmer Rouge infestation, which saw to the end of over two million souls. Cambodian-American lawyer Neary (ardent and intelligent Brooke Ishibashi) 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 a math teacher turned bureaucrat-torturer, Duch (Daisuke Tsuji, a charming showman channeling the banality of evil). Perversely enough, Duch, a cunningly congenial criminal, also narrates Cambodian Rock Band.

Yee first establishes the rocky relationship between Neary and her defensively affable dad Chum (a necessarily high-pitched Joe Ngo, whether jocular or tragic). Living with her Canadian boyfriend, Ted (affable and handsome Moses Villarama), she seeks one of only eight survivors of the notorious death camp S-21 where 20,000 perished, but the visiting Chum is much more interested in recreation, enjoying the karaoke salons that would never have been permitted under dictator Pol Pot. Clearly, Chum — an émigré to the U.S. from Cambodia — has a past there. It’s safe to tell you that the storyline also involves Cyclos, the five-member band that opens the show.

In the wrenching second act, we are reminded about 1975, when left-wing fanatics — exploiting the vacuum created by the American incursion and, later, the departure after the end of the Vietnam war — occupied Cambodia and massacred their fellow citizens. “Just following orders” remains one of the most complicated statements regarding survival and genocide.

In theater, life’s little victories matter a ton. The trenchant scenes in Act II expose the astonishing ambivalence and relativism that color life-and-death conflicts and, amazingly, the power of music to bond enemies and family. Rather than indulge in easy showdowns between good versus evil, Yee depicts a father and daughter who find common ground beyond vengeance or justice.

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.

Yew’s actor-musicians (Jane Lui on that smokin’ organ, Abraham Kim on drums, Villarama on bass, Ngo on guitar, and the incredible vocals of Ms. Ishibashi) 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 Jenny Graham

Cambodian Rock Band
Thomas Theatre
Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, OR
ends on October 27, 2019
for tickets, call 800.219.8161 or visit OSF

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