It's no small thing to get an audience standing and dancing, lost in the psychedelic/surf groove of a Cambodian-style rock band from the 1970s, in the wake of a story largely about torture and genocide. But that is what Lauren Yee's play at Berkeley Rep Cambodian Rock Band manages to do, in a special kind of emotional magic trick.
The play opens in 2008 — well, it actually opens with that 70s band, but I'll get to that in a second — and Neary (Geena Quintos) has been working for years with an NGO legal organization to bring a case to trial that will be the first of its kind against a former Khmer Rouge leader. Neary is the American child of Cambodian immigrants, and nearly 30 years after the fall of the Khmer Rouge and its brutal totalitarian regime, her father Chum (Joe Ngo) surprises her at her hotel room in Phnom Penh, saying he maxed out a credit card to come see her and her mother doesn't know.
What soon unfolds is the story of Chum's imprisonment under a brutal prison leader named Duch (Francis Jue), who happens to be the man Neary is about to help prosecute for war crimes. And in a flash, in Act 1, we are taken back to the day the Khmer Rouge took the city of Phnom Penh amid the country's civil war, a day when Chum and the band finished recording their first album, using a recording studio in the city that was free because many artists had already fled the city.
Led by Sothea (also played by Quintos, who has a phenomenal voice), along with bassist Leng (Moses Villarama), keyboardist Pou (Jane Lui), and drummer Rom (Abraham Kim), Chum's band embodies the era of 60s and early 70s, Western-influenced surf rock that was hugely popular in Cambodia — a country that has long prided itself on its musical traditions. Using songs by LA-based retro band Dengue Fever, as well as some songs from the era, the music sets the tone for the show and also serves as its transcendence — an escape from the misery of the prison story, and a balm for the characters themselves, as well.
There are also Yee's skills as a playwright to save us from gloom — even at its darkest, Cambodian Rock Band remains wryly comic, from the entrance of the older Chum in the first act, trying to get his daughter to join him at the fish spa across the street at the Sheraton, to the humor the younger, imprisoned Chum injects into his interactions with his captors — and director Chay Yew's steady hand is vital in maintaining that tone.
While the music works wonders to uplift the audience by the latter third of the show, the two songs the show opens with, and another two that are sandwiched into the album-recording scene feel like too much of a good thing, slowing down the action when it shouldn't be slowed. One number or partial number in each of those moments would likely aid the story better, and the opening two-song set in particular feels jarring when we won't have context in the play for the band or why they've taken the stage for another 30 minutes or so.
That said, music was the playwright's inspiration and first window into the Cambodian genocide story, and its dominance makes some sense. Yee says she fell in love with the music of Dengue Fever, and subsequently the music of their influences, only to discover in horror that most of the musicians from 1970s Cambodia were among the two million or so people murdered by the Khmer Rouge as perceived dissidents or enemies of the state.
In the 20th Century, there were few places and times more oppressive and hostile for artists and musicians than Cambodia in 1975, and it's powerful to have the story told through their eyes. Ngo gives a solid and at times nuanced performance as Chum, while Jue is an adequately smarmy and unsettling presence as Duch. There were moments, though, when it felt like Villarama and Quintos were acting in a different, more realist play, while Ngo and Jue were doing some more self-conscious emoting.
As a unique piece of theater about a dark historical moment, Cambodian Rock Band succeeds in spades. It nonetheless has the hallmarks of a work in progress, with a few rough edges to polish or trim.
'Cambodian Rock Band' plays through April 2 at Berkeley Repertory Theater. Find tickets here.
Top image: Photo by Lynn Lane