I didn’t know what to expect when I entered the Jungle Theater last night for their co production with Theater Mu. I knew there would be a rock band and that it was going to be telling the story of a dark time in Cambodian history. But I didn’t know for sure how that story would be told or anything much about the history of Cambodia. The stage is set before the show even begins with the typical band set up: drums, guitars, keyboards, mics, amps and speakers front and center. When the show begins, the band takes the stage and plays a rocking song that immediately gets your body bouncing along. Sort of a classic 70’s hard rock sound but sung in Khmer I assume, which is the primary language of Cambodia. When the first song ends they launch into a second song, again it sounds amazing and the vocals are incredible but, it also is not in English. And as much as I’m enjoying the music, the thought keeps creeping into my head, what if this is the whole show. What if I’m in for two and a half hours of a band playing songs sung in a language I don’t understand. Right now I’m enjoying it, but will that hold true eight songs from now? Thankfully, I never discovered the answer to that question as the second song was interrupted by one of the characters in the story portion of the play. Yes, there are a lot more songs, most of which are not in English, but the are interspersed with scenes of dialogue and woven into the narrative. In that formation I never thought about again or cared that I couldn’t understand the lyrics. This is a show in which the musical performances transcend language, with the feel of a rock concert perfectly blended with an intimate story through which we begin to understand the large scale tragedy of Cambodia in this dark period of it’s history.
Cambodian Rock Band tells the story of one man’s experience confronting his past when he returns to Cambodia for the first time after fleeing the country 30 years ago. We learn about the history of that country as the story shifts between the present and the past. In the present, Neary, a young american woman who is preparing to prosecute Duch, who is to be tried for crimes against humanity, as the warden of Khmer Rouge’s prison camp S-21. During the Khmer Rouge’s four years in power they exterminated between 1.5 and 2 million people, many in prison camps like S-21. Neary’s father Chum, who grew up in Cambodia, has come back to see his daughter without any warning. The first scenes play like a comedy about a child and her frustrations with her father who embarasses her, as parents will do, and who doesn’t seem to understand her or what she is trying to do. The past will explore Chum’s experiences as a young man during that period in which Khmer Rouge was in power. There are some interesting revelations along the way which will be more interesting if you discover them on your own. The story really belongs to Chum, but Duch acts as a narrator believing it’s all about himself.
The band we are watching we learn is Chum’s band, he is the bassist. There are four main characters in the play and all but Eric Sharp who plays Duch, also perform in the band. Sharp plays Duch in narrative form as a celebrity personality, all big smiles like a gameshow host. At times he joins the band and is very high energy. When he plays him in the past he becomes chillingly cold and weary, Sharp is equally effective in each phase. Greg Wantanabe as Chum also has to perform in two different styles. At the opening he’s the seemingly clueless father comically at odds with his daughter and judging every aspect of her life, while also making sure he doesn’t get cheated out of his free coke at the fish massage parlor. In the past, he has a much more dramatic role to play, and excels at playing these dual sides of his character. Danielle Troiano plays Neary in the present and Sothea, the lead singer of the band in the past. She has an amazing singing voice and that goes a long way in making the language in which the songs are performed irrelevant to their enjoyment. The other major factor is that the songs musically are really catchy and rocking. The band is rounded out by Christopher Thomas Pow who is Leng, the guitarist in the band but also plays Neary’s boyfriend Ted in the opening of the play. Mayda Miller is the keyboardist Pou and other ensemble characters. Shawn Mouacheupao is the drummer Rom as well as other ensemble roles. The five members of the band are very tight musically, I am always in awe of shows like this that finds performers who can act the roles but are also amazing musicians.
The Show is written by Lauren Yee who finds a way to accomplish so much in the course of one evening. She entertains and moves us with the story by educating us about the history of cambodia without it feeling like a history lesson. She also introduces us to these phenomenal songs of Dengue Fever among others. If I knew anything about Cambodia going in, it was about its relationship to Vietnam, learning about the music was a surprising treat. The show is directed by Lily Tung Crystal the Artistic Director of Theater Mu who inherently understands how to present this material to completely engage the audience. We open to some electric music and while we are enjoying it but just about to start questioning what we are in for, the moment is interrupted with the irreverent variant of the Duch character. The bands stage which seems positioned in such a way that there isn’t anywhere for actors to play out any scenes, splits in half and moves off into the wings. The Scenic and Projections Designer Mina Kinukawa is very strong and creative, what looks when we enter as a very limited space effectively becomes multiple locations with a surprising sense of depth. The Lighting Design by Amy Adelaide Nguyen and Karin Olson also very evocative, I especially enjoyed what they were doing during the band performances giving us a sense of period with the lighting reflecting the feel we associate with western music during the period of the Vietnam war. Circling back to the music one last time, credit is due to Musical Director Mandric Tan and Cultural and Language Consultant Mongkol Teng. One assumes not all and possibly none of the performers speak Khmer, but to the audience it feels like it is their first language, which if you think about it is kind of mindblowing.
Cambodian Rock Band is Rocking through July 31st and is highly recommended for more information and to purchase tickets go to https://www.theatermu.org/cambodian-rock-band or https://www.jungletheater.org/
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