“Surviving is important, but thriving is elegant.” - Maya Angelou
Surviving and thriving are in ample supply at Pershing Square Signature Center, where a triumphant new Signature Theatre production of Lauren Yee’s Cambodian Rock Band (now one of many) is taking Off-Broadway by storm.
It began as a commission from South Coast Rep in 2015 sent Yee to churches, malls, and food courts all over Orange County. And, incidentally, to a local Cambodian music festival, where she was introduced to Cambodia’s thriving psychedelic surf rock scene in the 60s. What was briefly a play about this music ultimately saw the music folded directly into the story. For Lauren Yee, the best way to demonstrate the importance of music is to show it to an audience.
The raucous rock concert that takes place between scenes treats audiences to an introduction to Cambodian music, featuring songs by Cambodian staples such as Dengue Fever and Ros Serey Sothea. Its function is not solely dramaturgical—though in Khmer, the songs are in absolute coherence with the narrative, and often set the tone of their corresponding scenes.
The story itself is of Neary, a Cambodian-American NGO worker who returns to Cambodia to work to convict Duch, the first Khmer Rouge leader to face trial. Duch, once the overseer of S-21 prison camp, was responsible for the torture and deaths, and whose meticulousness left only seven survivors when the camp was liberated.
Complications arise when Neary discovers her father, Chum to be the secret eighth survivor, whose buoyant, dad-joke-laden persona clouds his trauma at the hands of Duch, and the mysterious circumstances surrounding his escape.
Duch and Chum, relics of a Cambodia whose grisly history lays thinly buried, scarcely forgotten, wrestle for truth, redemption, and control of a narrative that Yee masterfully crafts to render both of them, and all the characters, unabashedly human.
Yee offers a human lens to her characters and doesn’t shy away from the complex nature of their moral conflict. Both Duch and Chum dirty their hands within the narrative, but while Chum faces the truth, Duch’s refusal to admit his guilt drives him to insomnia.
That Duch is a sympathetic and compelling character, however, is also to the credit of the magnificent Francis Jue, who is so naturally endearing and adorable that his casting as a sadistic and methodical war criminal is a stroke of twisted genius. But even before his reveal, even as he struts jauntily across the stage with his maracas, his brilliant performance sheds clues. Jue’s elocution straddles a taut line between warm and menacing, and his deft manipulation of this line keeps audiences on their toes.
The entire cast is nothing short of stellar; in addition to brilliant performances, each are on double or triple duty as instrumentalists and vocalists. Costumed gorgeously by Linda Cho, Courtney Reed will transport you across time and space with her many-splendored voice. And Joe Ngo will shred a chord to simultaneously break and mend your heart.
Human beings are complex, and deal with trauma in complex ways. Perhaps Cambodian Rock Band’s greatest triumph is in asserting joy as one of them. Thus, this wittily funny, wonderfully complex, and deeply moving work ends as it began: In a defiant celebration of irresistible joy.
(Photo by Joan Marcus)
"To Yee’s credit, she neatly connects all the seemingly far-flung dots of her story. But neither her script nor Yew’s production — which features period-defining costumes by Linda Cho and lighting by David Weiner — can comfortably reconcile the radical shifts in style and mood, between the bright sardonicism of Duch’s speeches to the audience and the furrowed-brow sincerity of the father-daughter scenes."
Ben Brantley for New York Times
"Imagine a version of Cabaret where the Emcee turns out to be Adolf Eichmann or Klaus Barbie. Now, transplant that reimagined show to Southeast Asia, and you have a glimpse into Lauren Yee’s harrowing and wildly funny play about the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror."
Robert Hofler for The Wrap
"When the sinisterly charming emcee played by Francis Jue clicks through black and white slides of the Khmer Rouge period near the start of Cambodian Rock Band, he rolls his eyes at the automatic associations most people have with the Southeast Asian country. "Bor-ring," he groans. "Tragique," he adds, with an archly campy gestural flourish and just a hint of a conspiratorial wink. Sardonic humor isn't something you expect from a play addressing a genocide that claimed two million lives, but it's part of what has made Lauren Yee's genre-defiant blend of family reckoning, haunting historical investigation and psychedelic surf rock concert such a popular hit across the country."
David Rooney for Hollywood Reporter