Reviews NYCOff-Broadway Published 25 February 2020

Review: Cambodian Rock Band at Signature Theatre Center

Signature Theatre ⋄ 4 February-15 March, 2020

The music is bangin’, but Lauren Yee’s script and Chay Yew’s direction never quite free themselves from the obvious. Alison Walls notes a lot of missed opportunities to be daring.

Alison Walls
Joe Ngo, Abraham Kim, Courtney Reed, Jane Lui, and Moses Villarama in Cambodian Rock Band, by Lauren Yee and directed by Chay Yew. Photo: Joan Marcus

Joe Ngo, Abraham Kim, Courtney Reed, Jane Lui, and Moses Villarama in Cambodian Rock Band, by Lauren Yee and directed by Chay Yew. Photo: Joan Marcus

Lauren Yee’s Cambodian Rock Band doesn’t know what kind of play it wants to be; while striving towards the adventurous, the production at Signature Theatre never entirely shakes free of convention or stereotype. Inspired by real people and real events, Yee’s play tells the story of a Khmer Rouge survivor returning to Cambodia after thirty years to intervene as his American daughter prepares to prosecute Duch, once the head of the Khmer Rouge’s security branch and prison system, who oversaw the torture and genocide of more than 10,000 people at the notorious S-21 prison. 1970s-style pop music by the contemporary band Dengue Fever, combined with a few classic hits from the bygone era of Cambodian rock, played by the cast as the titular Cambodian rock band—Cyclos—introduces and punctuates the play. So too does a narrator (Francis Jue) who promises that even when he is not “HERE here” he is always “basically here.”

The play begins in 2008 with a sit-com-like premise: Neary (Courtney Reed), who has been working for two years for an NGO (the “International Center for Transitional Justice”) in Phnom Penh, discovers that her dad, Chum (Joe Ngo), has shown up out of the blue and without her mother, despite ignoring previous invitations to visit. In the second act, Chum’s memories transport the play to 1975 and a darker tone, the narrative gradually filling in mysteries large and small, eventually to return to 2008 and moral resolution.

The underlying material is fascinating and important. It is true, as the play points out, that Cambodia is remembered for its atrocities and not its lively pre–Khmer Rouge music and cultural scene; yet even those atrocities are no longer at the forefront of memory, though the expository dialogue reminds us of the role played by the United States in these events—and inevitably prompts reflection on other instances of U.S. interference in global politics, and the tragic consequences of abrupt withdrawal. The strangely intimate relationship between torturer and victim, guard and prisoner, is also rich with dramatic potential, as is the intriguing persistence of beauty—music and art—amidst the extreme ugliness of sadism, violence, greed, and desperation. (I cannot help but think of Ariel Dorfman’s 1990 Death and the Maiden.) Nor should it be overlooked that Cambodian Rock Band brings together a team of Asian American theatre artists, sadly still rare in a major NY production. And it is both sobering and moving to consider that Ngo is himself the son of Khmer Rouge survivors. The commitment of the creators and performers to telling this important story cannot be questioned.

Somehow, however, Cambodian Rock Band is less than the sum of its parts. The music is bangin’, and should lift the play out of standard naturalistic dramatization of real historic tragedy told through the personalizing lens of a father/daughter relationship—but it never really infuses the play as a whole, formally or tonally. Even when the band becomes part of the narrative, the musical interludes merely shift to being understood as diegetic. This is a missed opportunity. The music, with its almost hyper edge that combines pop’s manic happiness and rock’s righteous anger, while introducing a touch of nostalgia, possesses the dynamism the rest of the play needs. The visceral energy of the band never quite makes it past the proscenium arch either (despite partially/awkwardly successful attempts to get the audience dancing from their seats in the final number).

Yee wants, it seems, to create a destabilizing effect by drawing black humor and pop tunes into a story where the usual formulations of tragedy have grown so familiar as to lose all impact. This is the play I want to see—and it is there in fragments. Yee is at her best with smaller touches—the magical appearance of an electric guitar in a torture chamber; the realization that the comedic schtick of Chum’s one deaf side is the result of a pen being driven deep into his ear. She has the delicacy, for instance, to allow the metaphor of the spa fish—who eat the dead skin off people’s feet, but are, it turns out, “just regular fish,” starved long enough to eat anything, “even feet”—to speak for itself.

But these finer moments are at odds with a lot of energy-sucking exposition, as well as clichés and cheap humor that unfortunately dominate much of the play. The entire framing device of Chum and Neary’s relationship adds little and is where Yee descends most into sit-com/soap opera territory. Without the benefit of flashbacks, Neary and her half-Thai/Canadian boyfriend, Ted (Moses Villarama), are underdeveloped. The opening scenes fail to generate emotional investment in Neary or her relationship with her father, and so that investment is absent too from the daughterly absolution intended (too neatly) to provide cathartic resolution in the final scene.

The 2008 version of Chum, meanwhile, leans heavily on immigrant parent stereotype. Ngo squints, hunches, and delivers Chum’s broken English with a heavy accent. The characterization fails to find the fine balance between self-aware recognition and perpetuation of stereotype, and the broad, hokey humor is very low-hanging fruit. Ngo does lose this caricature in his performance of the younger Chum, played with sincerity and more nuance, and there is the potential for a fantastic bait and switch as the audience realizes that the stereotyped clown is, in fact, the tragic hero (this was, I suspect the aim of Yee and director Chay Yew), but it only lands in rare moments, such as the one deaf ear.

Jue, narrating as (spoiler alert) Duch, similarly leans towards cliché, falling into a vaguely camp, ironically charming villain role too familiar to him, and to audiences. This diluted version of the emcee from Cabaret is less interesting than the sleep-deprived math teacher turned genocidal war criminal. (I am generally impatient for playwrights to find an alternative to the narrator-figure, which increasingly feels like an uninventive shortcut for both irony and exposition.) The cast, especially Reed, are much stronger as musical performers than as actors—as a band they display musicianship and charisma, and a vibrancy lacking in their spoken scenes. (Admittedly, a unique triple-threat is required: actor/musicians who can not only sing, but sing in Khmer.)

Greater lateral thinking is also needed, however, in the problematic staging of torture scenes. Yee and Yew could, in this case, have looked to other theatre artists who have more successfully solved the problem of getting an audience to imagine the horrors of torture without asking them or the actors to be complicit in its reenactment. The simple archival reminder of real violence, used sparingly in the projection of photos here, can be more affecting than a dramatized depiction. Or, as directors such as the controversial Italian theatre artist Romeo Castellucci have demonstrated, an overtly theatrical use of blood and sound amplification can viscerally drive home the horrors of such violence (indeed, Castellucci’s work has proven too much for many). A basically naturalistic performance of torture can only ever manage to be simultaneously disturbing, unconvincing, and insufficient.

Costume designer Linda Cho naturally has more fun with the band’s psychedelic outfits, which add aesthetic appeal, than the unremarkable, if on point, 2008 costumes. Takeshi Kata’s set makes clever repeated use of a central trapdoor and signs to evoke Phnom Penh past and present; these, combined with occasional projections by Luke Norby showing the Cambodian rockers the play pays tribute to, as well as photos of some of the Khmer Rouge’s many victims, give more weight to the work’s temporal interplay. But in the design too, there is a missed opportunity for something less literal, more boundary pushing.

Under Chay Yew’s direction, the production ultimately never frees itself from the obvious; it remains stuck as a slightly flat dramatized narrative. The weaker points of the script, direction, and performance compound each other, while their equal and very real strengths remain isolated sparks of potential. With more forceful direction and more truly daring dramaturgy, this could be an exciting theatrical work. Cambodian Rock Band reaches for something more radical—and for a more emotionally turbulent experience for its audience—but it doesn’t yet rock.

Alison Walls is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

Review: Cambodian Rock Band at Signature Theatre Center Show Info

Produced by Signature Theatre

Directed by Chay Yew

Written by Lauren Yee

Scenic Design Takeshi Kata; costume design: Linda Cho; projection design: Luke Norby

Lighting Design David Weiner

Sound Design Mikhail Fiksel

Cast includes Francis Jue, Abraham Kim, Jane Lui, Joe Ngo, Courtney Reed, and Moses Villarama

Original Music Dengue Fever

Show Details & Tickets

Running Time 2 hours 25 minutes


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