“Cambodian Rock Band” is a straight-up masterpiece that brings to the forefront a story that needs to be told.
The play sheds light and truth on a dark period of history that many people are unaware of. It shows what happened in Cambodia in the mid-1970s, using music as a key component to tell this tale. Saying that this is a must-see production is a vast understatement.
“Cambodian Rock Band” opens with two numbers by the Cyclos, a Cambodian rock band, with five members of the cast in the group. We find out that American rock music was quite popular in the country in the 1960s and 1970s, with Cambodian pop-rock bands playing throughout the nation. Things changed in 1975 when the Khmer Rouge took over. Until 1979, they conducted a reign of terror that left nearly two million people dead. Intellectuals, artists, musicians, and anyone who was thought to be influenced by foreign culture was systematically killed.
There is not a wasted moment here, as “Cambodian Rock Band” engages the audience from the second it begins. The direction by Chay Yew is a wonder to behold. He does a masterful job of switching gears between past and present and making this tale come alive on stage. This production conveys the full spectrum of human emotions, from a rousing rock concert, a family drama, to the searing and heartbreaking way it shows what happens at a prison camp.
“Cambodian Rock Band” vividly displays in a variety of poignant ways why the arts are such a vital way to express who we are as human beings. The play shows first-hand how atrocities can occur when those in power attempt to repress the fundamental human need of self expression by brutally eliminating those they do not agree with.
Playwright Lauren Yee has written a riveting work that combines real life history mixed with an engaging dramatized story of a woman and her father confronting his past. This is theatre of the highest order that takes you on an emotional roller coaster ride.
A vast majority of the first half of the play takes place in 2008, as Chum (Joe Ngo) returns home to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, for the first time in years to make an unexpected visit to see his American born and raised daughter Neary(Brooke Ishibashi). She has been in Cambodia for two years working on unresolved cases involving the Khmer Rouge. Neary is surprised to have her overly protective father finally coming for a visit, as it is slowly revealed the story he told to his child of his life in Cambodia was built on fabrications. In reality, he is a rare survivor of S-21, the most notorious prison in all of Cambodia during the brutal regime of the Khmer Rouge.
The play goes back in time to 1975, as we find out Chum stayed in Cambodia longer than he should have because of his commitment to his band, as he deals with his guilt from the tragedies that occur because of his decision. At the end of the first half, the Khmer Rouge begins its march into Phnom Penh. The sound of the Khmer Rouge marching towards Phnom Penh can be heard in the theatre as the first half concludes and throughout intermission. This gives the audience a sense of foreboding as they head back to their seats.
At the start of the second half, we are now in 1978 and Chum is a prisoner at S-21.The less said the better, but what happens is harrowing and devastating, as we learn what he had to endure, and what desperate measures he had to take to survive. After all the horrors that take place, what the play does so beautifully is to honor the music and musicians from this time period in Cambodia whose lives were cut short. It gives them a voice once again by letting their music live on. The music performed is a mixture of songs sung in Cambodian and English, with the majority of the tunes written by by the modern group Dengue Fever and by actual musicians from the time period. Dengue Fever is a Los Angeles based band that performs this lost music from Cambodia, as well as original songs. The music here is top notch. A memorable moment occurs at the plays conclusion, when members of the audience are invited to dance along, ending the play with music and hope.
A fascinating and complex character we meet is the narrator of the story, a charismatic man named Duch (DaisukeTsuji). He is clever, funny, and charming, but there’s something in his eyes that is much more dark and sinister underneath his flashy costume and personality. This is a role Tsuji fully inhabits, as he displays the many different sides of this character. It is fascinating to learn about this man and his duality as a human being. Tsuji is simply electric here and gives a dynamic performance that is a joy to behold.
Ngo is riveting in every scene he is in as Chum. It is amazing to watch him transform from the young man we see in the 1970s, to the older man we see in 2008. It is a complete and beautifully subtle and realistic change by Ngoonstage. Ngo makes you care about his character every step of the way in a tour de force performance.
Ishibashi is perfect as Neary. She is a young woman determined to do what she can to bring out the truth of the horrors that were done by the Khmer Rouge. Neary’s relationship with her father is a complex and fascinating one. Ishibashi is a terrific lead singer of the Cyclos and simply rocks out, as does the rest of the actors in the band. She brings a strong stage presence and wonderful singing voice when she is Sothea, the lead singer of the band Chum is a member of.
Moses Villarama does excellent work here in two roles. In 2008, he’s Ted, the Thai Canadian boyfriend of Neary. In the flashback scenes, he is Leng, a member of the Cyclos and a close friend of Chum. The relationship between these two men is fascinating and complex. What takes place when Chum and Leng meet again in 1978 is heartbreaking and beautifully done drama. Villarmana is terrific in both parts, especially as Leng, as we see what this man had to do to survive in his war torn country.
The other two members of the band are Rom, played by Abraham Kim, and Pou, played by Jane Lui. Kim and Luiplay other parts as well and do great work here.
“Cambodian Rock Band” at OSF is a production of stunning brilliance that I will not forget anytime soon. It is easily one of the best plays I have seen at OSF, or for that matter, anywhere else.
“Cambodian Rock Band” opened at the Thomas Theatre at OSF in Ashland on March 9, and runs until Oct. 27. For more information, and to purchase tickets, go to www.osfashland.org.