Theater review by Adam Feldman
“Welcome to Cambodia, 2008!” says Duch (Francis Yue), our jaunty host and mascot at Lauren Yee’s brash, disorienting Cambodian Rock Band. “The jewel, the pearl, the Detroit of Southeast Asia. The lost cause of lost causes! The capital of music.” Duch knows that music is probably not the first thing that comes to mind when we think of Cambodia, but as images of the Khmer Rouge era flood the stage, he campily moans that he is over it. (“Boring. Tragique! Genocide genocide genocide.”) He’s not just been there but done that: As the head of the infamous S-21 camp, the real-life Comrade Duch oversaw the torture and execution of thousands of prisoners. Lee’s use of him as a narrator is a gesture of twisted showbiz irony: He’s like the Emcee from Cabaret, if the Emcee were Adolf Eichmann.
This daffy Duch provides a frame for the first part of Lee’s play. Neary (Courtney Reed), a young American woman of Cambodian descent, is in Phnom Penh in 2008 as part of an NGO team working to convict Duch of crimes against humanity. Her excitable father, Chum (Joe Ngo, swinging hard and connecting), turns up unexpectedly, pleading with her to end her investigation into new evidence she has uncovered. This story line turns out to be another frame: Soon, Lee has taken us back to 1975, when Chum is a member of a scrappy local rock band, jamming alongside his friends Leng (Abraham Kim) and Sothea (Reed, singing beautifully)—whose name is an homage to Ros Serey Sothea, a singer murdered by the Khmer Rouge. Three songs by Ros are performed in the show (in Cambodian), along with numbers by fellow disappeared singers Sinn Sisamouth and Yol Aularong. The set list also includes a Dylan song and five tunes by the contemporary Los Angeles psychedelic–surf rock band Dengue Fever. (“Cement Slippers,” which sounds bit like the B-52s making out with the Pixies, is a standout.)
The flashback narrative leads, inevitably, to S-21 itself, where Duch steps into the picture. Lee’s theatrical artifices set this section up well: What might otherwise have risked slipping into melodrama keeps its footing through the contrast with what has preceded it. Directed by Chay Yew, Cambodian Rock Band doesn’t quite hang together as a whole: It relies too much on contrivance and exposition, especially in the modern parts. But there’s something both touching and rousing about the way it honors the lost beat of Cambodia’s past. It’s an act of defibrillation.
Signature Theatre (Off Broadway). By Lauren Yee. Songs by Dengue Fever and others. Directed by Chay Yew. With Joe Ngo, Francis Jue, Courtney Reed, Abraham Kim. Running time: 2hrs 25mins. One intermission.