Cambodian psychedelic and surf-rock music provide both the backdrop and the catalyst for truth-telling in Lauren Yee’s fascinating “Cambodian Rock Band,” playing through Dec. 15 at La Jolla Playhouse.
Yee, a Cambodian American – and a UCSD MFA in playwriting – premiered the play at South Coast Repertory in 2012 and now brings it “home” for a local run.
Chay Yew, who directed the premiere, helms this show as well, and has brought along five of the original six actors.
Cambodia is probably not the first place that comes to mind when somebody mentions psychedelic or surf-rock music. Yet before the war in the 1960s and ’70s that brought the Khmer Rouge to power, Prince Sihanouk (in charge at the time and a composer himself) fostered a vibrant art and music scene there.
But when the Khmer Rouge took over, artists and intellectuals were the first targets, and music was the first thing to go. Two million people were tortured and executed in labor camps and prisons during Pol Pot’s four-year reign.
The story-with-music jumps back and forth in time between 1975, 1978 and 2008. It opens in 1975 with a bang of a song from a band called Cyclo. We’re told the song is from the only record they made.
Then the time shifts to 2008, and Cambodian American Neary (Brooke Ishibashi) is in Phnom Penh to prepare for war crimes trials against the Pol Pot regime. Neary and the legal team are especially interested in tracking down the eighth survivor of the infamous S-21 prison, where much of the torture (and many of the deaths) took place.
Neary is surprised by an unannounced visit from her dad Chum (Joe Ngo), a survivor of the regime who lets Neary know upfront that he is not much impressed with her boyfriend Ted (Raymond Lee). He wants Neary to come home and go to law school.
The show knits together the moving story of Neary and her father and the harrowing story of the Pol Pot regime’s campaign against artists and intellectuals. The plot is enlivened by songs from Dengue Fever, a current band playing the Cambodian version of psychedelic and surf-rock music. Some lyrics are in Khmer, some in English, some both. It’s a beguiling combination.
Five of the actors play instruments, and several also play multiple roles. All are excellent.
The set by Takeshi Kata, lighting by David Weiner and Mikhail Fiksel’s sound design are excellent without being intrusive. The same can be said of Sara Ryung Clement’s costumes.
The story of the Pol Pot regime is another in history’s long string of murderous dictators. It’s the juxtaposition of such horrors with the bravery of those who faced them (and the few who survived) – enlivened by the inspirational powers of music – that makes “Cambodian Rock Band” such a fascinating show.
This show is on the list of the top 10 most-produced plays in the U.S. – with good reason. Get a ticket and find out why.
— Jean Lowerison is a long-standing member of the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.