Suspenseful script and deep acting stand out in Mo’olelo’s latest
By Charlene Baldridge | SDUN Theater Critic
Fascinated with human behavior, history or both? Longing for a gripping new play that goes far beyond the ordinary? Go to 10th Avenue Theatre to see Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company’s production of David Wiener’s “Extraordinary Chambers.”
“Extraordinary Chambers” is directed by Mo’olelo Artistic Director Seema Sueko, recipient of a Theatre Communications Guild leadership grant funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Though the grant requires that she be in Washington to work with leaders at Arena Stage, Sueko has returned to San Diego to stage the work. It premiered at the Geffen Theatre in Los Angeles, where it received the L.A. Drama Critics Circle Award for outstanding new play.
The “extraordinary chambers” in Wiener’s suspenseful and human script may refer to the ruins of Angkor Wat, near the Cambodian city of Siem Reap. Said to be the largest religious monument in the world, the temples were built during the Khmer Empire, which flourished from the ninth to 15th centuries. The ruins number at least a thousand and are overgrown by the roots of spung trees.
The title could also refer to chambers in the United Nations’ courts of Cambodia, a tribunal established 2003 to prosecute leaders of the Khmer Rouge, the ruling party of Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. Their leader, Pol Pot, was responsible for the deaths of more than 2 million Cambodians, a quarter of the population at the time, according to the program note.
The plot of Wiener’s play concerns an American couple, Mara (played by Erika Beth Phillips) and Carter (Manny Fernandes). Carter works for a large U.S. communications company seeking a Cambodian contract. Their guide is Sopoan (Albert Park), who works for Dr. Heng (Greg Watanabe), he being a self-described facilitator who helps people achieve their purpose. Heng’s wife, Rom Chang (Esther K. Chae), has her own mystery and power, evidenced in the kind of “laying on of hands” that banishes pain and intuits sorrow.
Carter and Mara, whose relationship is established in the first scene upon their arrival in Cambodia, have a secret sorrow that they are unable to discuss. The instant Rom lays hands on Mara, healing her pain and intuiting her sorrow and need, a plot is set in motion.
The fascination lies in one’s mind as Sopoan, a victim of Khmer Rouge torture and mind control, reveals his sorrow in direct address to the audience. Guilt, innocence and culpability – past and present – are up for grabs. Wiener leaves it up to onlookers to decide and, yes, there are surprises.
A finer company cannot be imagined. Watanabe, who played Sopoan in the Geffen staging, is known for his work in Mo’olelo productions of “How I Got That Story” and “Yellow Face.” Known for her work in Mo’olelo’s “A Piece of My Heart” and “Since Africa,” Phillips is fathoms deep.
Park does his absolute best work, as does Fernandes. Chae is a revelation as the multifaceted Rom. Sueko’s staging is astute and of a piece.
The physical production created by scenic designer David F. Weiner, lighting designer Jason Bieber and Jeannie Galioto is as fascinating as the acting. All is greatly enhanced by Joseph Huppert’s sound design, infused with field recordings from Cambodia by Carmen Baden of Black Ice Sound.
WHERE: Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company at the 10th Avenue Theatre, 930 10th Ave. (Downtown)
WHEN: Wed. – Sat. at 8 p.m. and Sun. at 2 p.m. through June 30