Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
The two forms of presentation, play and rock concert, exist in symbiosis, each energizing the other. The deeply felt play by Lauren Yee tells a gripping story with searing sentiments and images. The musical interludes provide a respite from having to fully witness the story taking place on stage. The story begins with Neary, a Cambodian American woman in her twenties who returns to her homeland–though, as she points out, she hasn't really returned, having never before been there. In Phnom Penh, the capital, she works for a non-governmental organization trying to convict for crimes against humanity a man called Duch, who was chief of the notorious S-21 prison where thousands were tortured and put to death during the 1975-1979 Khmer Rouge regime under the maniacal dictator Pol Pot, a period often referred to as the Cambodian genocide.
Neary is surprised by a visit from her Cambodian-born father, Chum, who had vowed never to return. Rom evades his daughter's questions about why he arrived unannounced with wise-crack remarks, which he also uses to show his displeasure with her Thai-Canadian boyfriend, who is a surprise to him. Neary finally compels Chum to reveal his motive for being there, which causes him to also reveal the untold story of his youth in Cambodia when he and his friends had their very own Cambodian rock band.
Seen in a recording session, these young wannabe rock stars have the same sound–indeed, they are the same performers–as in the play's purely "concert" scenes. The terrific songs were originally written or recorded by the Los Angeles-based group Dengue Fever. Formed in 2001, with their first album released in 2003, Dengue Fever's sound draws on what was a burgeoning pop music scene in Phnom Penh from the mid-1960s until Pol Pot brought anything resembling Western culture to a screeching halt. The lyrics are mostly in Cambodian, but that doesn't prevent us from grasping the feelings of pent up energy, of a yearning to explore life deeply, and unrequited desires. Their music mixes the raw energy of a garage band, the free-thought meandering of psychedelic acid rock, and the graceful harmonics of Southeast Asian music. It is at once rousing and quite lovely.
While the music can no doubt stand on its own–as indeed it does on the numerous albums Dengue Fever has released–it is hard to imagine the play having its same impact without their music. That music represents the vitality, the ambition, and shared community of the musicians artistic cravings. It is a proxy for everything at stake in the hands of a totalitarian leader, with hordes of their countrymen in his thrall. To survive, Chum and the others have to disavow their activities, but not without paying a heartbreaking price. The present-set concert rendition of their songs shows us both what is lost and the unquenchable fires that keep such passions alive, however deeply buried, in their hearts.
To be cast in Cambodian Rock Band means being able to portray emotionally wrenching characters and, in alternating scenes, play and sing rock and roll with unbridled energy. Director Lily Tung Crystal (who is artistic director of Theater Mu) has managed to assemble such a cast; they are hugely talented, imbedding both their music and their characterizations with passion. Greg Watanabe is outstanding in the pivotal role of Chum, a father whose approach to parenting involves peddling the right joke for the occasion, until he is forced to break open his defenses and reveal painful truths. Watanabe is also a top notch bass player. Danielle Troiano gives a stirring performance as Neary, and as Sothea, the vocalist in Rom's 1975, pre-genocide rock band as well as the vocalist in the 2022 Cambodian Rock Band performing for us, she displays a spectacular voice and high-octane stage presence. Troiano performs locally under the persona D'Lourdes and seems as likely to attain great success in the club scene as on theater stages.
Christopher Thomas Pow, performing for the first time in Minnesota, is endearing as Neary's supportive boyfriend and has ferocious dramatic chops as Leng, Neary's best friend back in their youth. He is also fantastic as lead guitarist in the rock groups, both then and now. Shawn Mouacheupao as Rom, the band's drummer, and Mayda Miller as Pou, their keyboard player, have less to do in their speaking roles, but contribute mightily to the group's vibrant sound. Finally, as the monstrous Duch, Eric Sharp is fantastic. The lone actor on stage who is not part of the rock band, he hovers over their performances, a bon-vivant type with a sinister undertone, something like a cross between the emcee from Cabaret and a James Bond villain. When he appears in Chum's recitation of his tortured past, Sharp conveys the buried ambiguity within this cruel jailer–sane enough to know that the orders given by Pol Pot are horribly wrong-minded, yet without recourse but to do anything but play the role required for his own survival.
Scenic and projection designer Mina Kinukawa has aptly visualized the various settings, from a modern hotel overlooking a streetscape of mixed traditional and contemporary architecture, to the studio where Chum's band is recording what they hope will be a break-out hit, to the dark recesses of the S-21 prison. The present-day performances by the band are enhanced by trippy projections reminiscent of late sixties psychedelia. Costumes, lights and sound all jell to create a uniformly strong production, and Annie Enneking's fight choreography results in one of the most wrenching fights scenes I have seen on stage. Be advised that, because some content in Cambodian Rock Band describes or depicts horrendous violence, the producers have set aside a reflection room for anyone needing to step out of the theater and calm themselves.
While the band and its members, as well as Neary and Ted, are the playwright's invention, a great deal of historical truth rests in the narrative. S-21 was indeed the name of the most terrifying prison, where those charged with being enemies of the state were confined and tortured until they confessed their crimes–which in many cases were complete fabrications–or died. A man called Duch truly was the prison's chief, a former math teacher gone mad by the nature of the service into which he was pressed. Between fifteen and twenty thousand individuals held there were killed; as the play tells us, only seven or eight inmates are known to have survived. This is just one fragment of the horrors inflicted upon Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge regime led by Pol Pot, a grim reference point by which we measure the gravity of genocidal campaigns today.
That this painfully remembered piece of history can be so adroitly depicted within the confines of a high-octane rock concert, pumping out exactly the kind of artistic freedom and energy that the Khmer Rouge attempted to erase from Cambodia, is a near miracle. I would like to interpret it as the triumph of art, youth and positivity over the darkness. Like the band's resurgence of life, Cambodian Rock Band is a triumph.
Cambodian Rock Band runs through July 31, 2022, at the Jungle Theater, 2951 Lyndale Avenue S., Minneapolis MN. Tickets are on a "pay as you are" basis, $5.00 to $90.00, with suggested market value of $45.00 per ticket. For tickets call 612-822-7073 or go to www.jungletheater.org. For information about Theater Mu, please visit www.theatermu.org.
Playwright: Lauren Yee; Songs By: Dengue Fever; Director: Lily Tung Crystal; Scenic and Projection Design: Mina Kinukawa; Costume Design: Khamphian Vang; Costume Director: Sarah Bahr; Lighting Design: Amy Adelaide Nguyen and Karin Olson; Sound Designer: Sean Healey; Fight Choreography: Annie Enneking; Dramaturgy Fellow: Cody Kour; Dramaturgy Advisor: Annie Jin Wang; Associate Director: Jake Sung-Guk Sullivan; Cultural and Language Consultant: Mongkol Teng; Stage Manager and Properties: John Novak; Technical Director: Matthew Erkel; Production Manager: Matthew Earley.
Cast: Mayda Miller (Pou/Karaoke Host/S21 Guard), Shawn Mouacheupao (Rom/Journalist), Christopher Thomas Pow (Ted/Leng), Eric Sharp (Duch), Danielle Troiano (Neary/Sothea), Greg Watanabe (Chum), Deryck Hak (Acting Fellow: Karaoke Host/Journalist/S21 Guard - June 28 - July 31).