By Ted Hoover
Pittsburgh Current Theater Critic
It takes a playwright of unique talent to tell the story of the genocide of nearly 2 million people … and do it in an entertaining manner. But Lauren Yee pulls off this remarkable feat in Cambodian Rock Band, now receiving it’s Pittsburgh premiere at City Theatre.
Since I’ve been asked a couple of times – is Cambodian Rock Band a musical?” – let’s start there. The answer depends entirely on your definition of a musical. If you mean “musical” as in a theatrical production in which songs advance the plot or define the characters, then Cambodian Rock Band is not. But it is a very musical event which, occasionally, is about music.
According to the program, a few years back Yee was taken to see the band Dengue Fever which performed cover versions of hits from 70’s Cambodian bands. She was so enthralled she created a play around the music informed, in part, by the story of Cambodian rock.
If you, like me, are surprised to learn that not only is there something called Cambodian rock, but there’s also a story behind it then strap in, because Yee has something she wants to tell us.
And it starts with the 2 million.
In 1975, fueled in large part by the U.S.’s “secret bombings” of Cambodia during the Vietnam War, the uber-Communist Khmer Rouge took over the country and began five years of mass murder. The regime killed “enemies of the state” defined by political, religious, racial, educational and economic classification. In total, nearly 25% of the population was butchered and some aspects of this story have been dramatized in the film The Killing Fields.
One group the Khmer Rouge went after with especially lethal fervor was musicians, believing that Cambodia’s burgeoning music scene was corrupted by outside capitalist influences and in their first wave of slaughter killed almost every single musician in the country. And where you and I might think such horror could never be dramatized, Yee meets the challenge head-on.
She begins the play in present-day Cambodian where the native-born, but now American resident, Chum has come back to surprise his daughter Neary. She’s been in Cambodia for the past two years working with the United Nations on the war crime trial of a man named Duch. He was once the head of the infamous Tuol Sleng prison (a.k.a. S-21) and responsible for 20,000 deaths. (Duch is a real person, Neary and Chum are inventions of the author.)
Of course, nothing is as simple as it seems and a whole lot of secrets will be unearthed.
I’m not about to give any of them away, but Lee moves back and forth through time, including scenes of a young band just getting started in 1975, interrogations and torture in S-21 and the contemporary father/daughter storyline. Interspersed through it all are the songs of Dengue Fever. Sometimes the cast appears as members of the 1975 group, other times they’re the house band playing music to emphasize the moods Yee creates onstage.
And all of it is mesmerizing. I knew/know next to nothing about the play’s events so just learning some part of that history is interesting. No one would ever even suggest I’m a fan of contemporary music, (give me Sondheim or give me silence!) but I found much of the score really fascinating. Yee’s consistently sifting tone from satire to serious to silly gives the evening a wholly fresh, inventive feel and I was especially intrigued by her two lead creations; Duch and Chum. Defined by impeccably drawn performances from Albert Park and Greg Watananbe, these two characters are the riveting center of the show, providing contrapuntal visions of love and hate. Aja Wiltshire is a forceful presence as the impassioned Neary with Eileen Doan, Christopher Thomas Pow and Peter Sipla contributing strong support in their roles. Even more amazing are the musical moments the entire cast delivers … each have been blessed with some incredibly impressive skill sets.
What makes the success of Cambodian Rock Band even more amazing is the number of reasons it shouldn’t work but still does. Yee’s hand at exposition is, to put it mildly, inelegant and the sheer number of coincidences necessary to move the plot forward strain credulity to the snapping point. I also had some qualms about a scene in the second act which, I think, Yee intends to be the emotional highlight, but is patently artificial and its yearning toward theatrical sentimentality is kinda icky. I also wonder why Yee thought there wasn’t enough drama happening in S-12 that she had to invent some.
But you know what – who cares? Not me, that’s for sure. Thanks to the fluid, spot-on direction from Marti Lyons the evening flies by without a hitch and the results from Lyons, musical director Matthew MacNelly, this glorious cast and Yee herself is an immensely entertaining piece of theatre.
Cambodian Rock Band continues through October 6. City Theatre, South Side. 412/431-CITY. www.citytheatrecompany.org