Sunday, April 14, 2019

Shake Your Windows and Rattle Your Walls: Powerful Themes, Strong Performances Amplify 'Cambodian Rock Band' -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Cambodian Rock Band
a play with live music
Written by Lauren Yee
Songs by Dengue Fever
Directed by Marti Lyons
Victory Gardens Theatre, Chicago
Thru May 5

"What is Cambodian Rock Band about?"

Well, duh.

But as it turns out, it really isn't a silly question, as Lauren Yee's artful, multifaceted play--with live music onstage--isn't nearly as straightforward as the title may suggest.

And even just in terms of the name, things aren't quite so simple.

As I understand it, Yee was inspired to write Cambodian Rock Band through an affinity for Dengue Fever, a Los Angeles band from the 21st century influenced by Cambodian pop, surf and psychedelic music and its practitioners of the 1960s & '70s.

Songs by Dengue Fever are featured in the play, whose cast members perform them in the guise of The Cyclos, a presumably fictional Cambodian rock band, circa 1974, right before the Khmer Rouge seized power.

Dengue Fever will perform at Lincoln Hall on May 1 in conjunction with the play running across the street at Victory Gardens in the old Biograph Theater, but otherwise their members--only the singer of whom seems to be of Cambodian descent--are not in Cambodian Rock Band

The show isn't at all a biography of Dengue Fever, and there's almost no backstory about how the Cyclos--and the Khmer language and English sung but clearly British- and American-influenced music they play--came to be.

Rather, with some sly specifics I won't reveal, the play uses the Cyclos' members as a way to reflect on the genocidal regime of the Khmer Rouge and its leader, Pol Pot, said to have killed 2 million Cambodians.

With the narrative onstage also representing 1974 and 1978, at its most contemporary, Cambodian Rock Band is set in 2008.

Then, a Cambodian-American woman named Neary (played by Aja Wiltshire, who doubles as the lead singer of the Cyclos, and is fantastic) has been living in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh for a couple years.

Through an international advocacy group, she and her Thai-Canadian boyfriend, Ted (Matthew C. Yee, who also plays stellar guitar for the Cyclos), are involved in the crimes against humanity trial of a Khmer Rouge henchman named Duch (the terrific Rammel Chan).

Unexpectedly, Neary's dad, Chum (the also excellent Greg Watanable) comes to visit her, for reasons of his own that help drive Cambodian Rock Band's narrative.

From the get-go, we get some fine Dengue Fever songs--"Uku," "Family Business," "Cement Slippers"--well-performed by the cast members, including Eileen Doan and Peter Sipla, primarily musicians who supplement the four main actors in embodying Cyclos.

Strictly as a mini rock concert, with powerful chords struck simply in revealing the kind of music once made in Cambodia, the happenings onstage are terrifically enjoyable and eye-opening.

And with Cyclo recording an album on the precipice of Pol Pot taking over and the Khmer Rouge silencing--in quite grievous and permanent ways--artists of many types, I couldn't help think of Cabaret and the way its musical performances were infused with, and somewhat spiritually belied, a grave foreboding.

It's to Yee's great credit, and director Marti Lyons here--Victory Gardens artistic director Chay Yew helmed the original production of Cambodian Rock Band a few years ago for the South Coast Repertory near Los Angeles--that the show is truly about Cambodian musicians and so much more, with all the complexity handled quite adroitly.

Beyond mixing rock 'n roll with killing fields--which serves to address & amplify the indomitable spirit of art & artists--in having the superb Chan glibly break the fourth wall as the non-fictional Duch (pronounced "doik") who ran a murderous prison dubbed S21, the show even manages to add considerable humor to its tonality without feeling inappropriate.

Given all that this sophisticated, informative play impressively gets right, its imperfections only slightly detract from an effusive recommendation.

But its dramaturgical intricacy pushes credulity at times--we're asked to believe that Chum didn't tell his wife that he was flying from the U.S. to Cambodia to see their daughter--and I can't say I was entirely clear on how the latter got herself involved in Duch's trial.

And although the Biograph lobby contains panels informing of pioneering--and ultimately persecuted & perished--Cambodian pop musicians such as Ros Serey Sothea, Pen Ran and Sinn Sisamouth, I would've welcomed insights within the play about the Cyclos' impetus, inspiration and influences. (Though not so much sonically, Bob Dylan is revealed as an important one.)

Despite some minor weaknesses, Cambodian Rock Band is rather astonishing in its reach--and all that it achieves in about 2 hours.

Especially in telling a rather harrowing tale with great range & depth while also convincingly representing a multilingual rock band, the cast--along with the crew--is really sensational.

I had liked Yee and Chan in Vietgone last year at Writers Theatre--which I mentioned to that theater's artistic director, Michael Halberstam, who was seated nearby--and both are really good again here, with Chan's cheeky dexterity crucial to the play working as well as it does.

Though I knew Wiltshire could sing quite well from Merrily We Roll Along last year at Porchlight Theatre, she not only more thoroughly showcases her vocal talents, but impressive versatility as well.

And while I've been intentionally circumspect about how Watanabe factors in as Chum besides as Neary's dad, his performance is vital, diverse and superb. It's not surprising to note that he was in George Takei's Allegiance on Broadway.

If Cambodian Rock Band was simply what its title suggests, it would likely be quite good. As noted, I would've liked a bit more of a musical exploration.

But, one had to figure, it wouldn't be so narrowly-focused, and it quite impressively achieves its ambitious aims.

Musically, profoundly, poignantly, as history lesson, family drama and performance piece, it rocks.

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