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Cambodian Rock Band
Oregon Shakespeare Festival
Review by Patrick Thomas

Also see Patrick's reviews of As You Like It and Between Two Knees


Daisuke Tsuji and Moses Villarama
Photo by Julie Cortez
Who knew genocide* could be so much fun? That's a question you might ask yourself upon exiting the Thomas Theatre after a performance of Lauren Yee's Cambodian Rock Band, currently playing in repertory at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. For despite the fact that the show takes its audience inside a notorious prison during the reign of the Khmer Rouge, the darkness is leavened by the inclusion of lots of infectious, good time rock 'n' roll music (much of it written by the band Dengue Fever, but some is vintage 1970s-era Cambodian rock).

Cambodian Rock Band, which premiered at South Coast Repertory and has made its way to Ashland with the director and most of that cast intact, tells the story of Chum (Joe Ngo), and his daughter Neary (Brooke Ishibashi). As with Yee's King of the Yees (which I reviewed earlier this year, when it played at San Francisco Playhouse), the relationship between father and daughter is fraught. Neary hasn't lived up to dad's expectations. After failing to get into an Ivy League law school, she's gone to work for the International Center for Transitional Justice, which sent her to Cambodia to aid in the investigation into Duch (Daisuke Tsuji), warden of S-21, an infamous prison camp where thousands of ordinary Cambodians were tortured and executed. When the Khmer Rouge were overthrown in 1979, Duch (pronounced "doik") managed to escape, but was discovered more than 30 years later, hiding in plain sight, and brought to trial. Neary is aiding in the investigation into Duch's crimes. Although tens of thousands had once been interned at S-21, when it was liberated by the Vietnamese, there were only seven remained.

Now Neary and the team at ICTJ have uncovered evidence that there may be an eighth survivor, someone who managed to escape the camp in its last days and may still be alive and able to provide testimony that will help to convict Duch. But at the start of the play (after a couple of numbers from the Cyclos, the Cambodian rock band of the title), Chum shows up at Neary's hotel room, unannounced, claiming he simply wants to celebrate the lunar new year with his daughter, but he actually wants to convince her to come home and give the law school application process another try. "You stay too long, and it's possible to lose yourself," he says.

The story shifts back and forth between 2008, as Chum tries to dissuade his daughter from her work bringing Duch to justice, and the mid- to late-'70s as the Cyclos make music even in the face of the rise of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, who want to cleanse the nation of all intellectuals, writers and artists. But once Pol Pot takes over, the music ends as the chaos of the new regime breaks up the band.

It's a challenge to say much more about the plot without revealing its many surprises, but be prepared for prison camp cruelty, a demanding (but very loving) father, and lots and lots of energetic and thrilling rock music. The cast of six is multi-talented, not only playing multiple roles, but also playing their instruments (guitar, bass, drums, keyboards) with tremendous skill and verve. Joe Ngo is not only a terrific guitarist, he's also a powerful actor, playing Chum both in his teens and his 60s, and physically and emotionally transforms himself to the extent you almost forget it's the same actor. As young Chum, Ngo is passionate and energetic. When he becomes the older Chum, his posture slumps, his movements slow, and you can almost feel the effects of the oppression he (and millions of other Cambodians) suffered at the hands of the Khmer Rouge.

The rest of the cast is just as impressive. As Neary, Brooke Ishibashi is both dutiful and rebellious, but when she hits the bandstand as Sothea, the lead singer of the Cyclos, all the chains of duty fall away, freeing her to rock our world. Daisuke Tsuji is scarily charming as Duch, narrating some of the action and attempting to hijack the story to make it his own. Moses Villarama does great work as Leng, the Cyclos bass player, but is perhaps too reserved as Ted, Neary's Canadian-Cambodian boyfriend (channeling the Canadian side of his character to too great a degree, perhaps?). Jane Lui plays her electronic keyboard with tremendous physical subtlety, but the sounds she makes are anything but subtle. Drummer Rom (Abraham Kim) gets only a handful of lines, but Yee gives him one of the best ("When did drummers become musicians?") and he lands it with an equanimity that's perfectly in line with his character.

The former leader of Cambodia, Norodom Sihanouk (a composer himself) once said "music is the soul of Cambodia." Music may also be the soul of Cambodian Rock Band, but its heart is the tragic and redemptive story of the terrors of the killing fields as seen through the eyes of a father and daughter, and the geopolitical events that both unite and divide them.

Cambodian Rock Band, through October 27, 2019, at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Thomas Theatre, 15 S Pioneer St., Ashland OR. Check the calendar at www.osfashland.org for specific dates and times. Ticket are $39.10-$129 and can be purchased at the same website.

*Or at least a story about it.


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