Review: OSF’s ‘Cambodian Rock Band’

‘CAMBODIAN ROCK BAND’
Oregon Shakespeare Festival
Rating (out of 5): ★★★★★

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‘CAMBODIAN ROCK BAND’ by Lauren Yee. Pictured: (Left to right) Joe Ngo, Brooke Ishibashi, Abraham Kim, Jane Lui and Moses Villarama. Photo by Jenny Graham.

“Nothing in Cambodia stays buried for long.”

That line is delivered as a bit of an inside joke, but it comes with a sting, one that resonates throughout playwright Lauren Yee’s sensational new play, “Cambodian Rock Band.” The play premiered last year at South Coast Repertory Theater in Costa Mesa, where it pretty much blew everyone away. Fusing live rock music with brilliantly scripted storytelling, Yee’s script treats its emotionally difficult subject matter with furious wit, large-hearted compassion, fearless honesty and a scorching guitar lick or two. The play is set in Cambodia, in 2008 to begin with, then flashesback to 1975, just as the Khmer Rouge is poised to claim the country at the end of the Vietnam War. Yee’s script is brilliantly constructed so as to reveal its truths gradually, and one of the pleasures of experiencing it is figuring things out in the order Yee wants us to.

So I’m going to be very careful not to say too much.

I was born in 1960, and grew up with the Vietnam War on the evening news. The U.S. pulled out of the war while I was in high school. Most of my childhood had the war, and war protests, and war statistics, running in the background. But there were details about the war, and its aftermath, that I never fully realized until “Cambodian Rock Band,” a massively successful blend of history, human drama, theatrical ingenuity and – in OSF’s current production, directed by Chay Yew – some astonishing dual-purpose performances. Everyone in Yew’s cast takes turns performing a regular series of songs by the L.A.-based band Dengue Fever, and playing characters in the story. The story is narrated by a mysterious figure (played flawlessly by Daisuke Tsuji) who promises early on that his part in the story will come soon enough. That he manages to be so charmingly engaging, while eventually revealing darker truths, is not just a testament to Tsuji’s acting – it’s a key piece of the story Yee wants to tell.

“Genocide, Genocide, Genocide! Bo-ring!” the narrator says early on, perhaps one of the first times in history that a line with the words “genocide” in it actually gets a laugh.

In Cambodia, where over 2,000,000 people were killed in a horrifying genocide that targeted intellectuals, writers, artists and musicians – especially those devoted to western style rock and roll – the death count was not the only blot on the country’s history. As Yee allows us to learn, the human tragedy of Cambodia’s genocide created ripples that continue to this day.

As the tale begins, an idealistic young Cambodian-American lawyer Neary (Brooke Ishibashi) is in Phnom Penh, working on a case against a captured war criminal, who once ran a notorious detention center from which only seven captives walked out alive. When her father, Chum (Joe Ng) suddenly arrives to try and convince Neary to come back home to Massachusetts, its clear that Chum has a motivation greater than just wanting his daughter to get a good job in his adopted America. A refugee who never speaks of his life in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, Chum eventually shares his story in a series of flashbacks. This material, handled by Yee with an astonishing balance of humor and drama, takes the story into a semi-fantastical, almost dreamlike series of memories, as Chum’s own history – and yes, a Cambodian Rock Band is part of it – is in turn gorgeous, horrifying, hilarious and humane, sometimes all at once.

I’ve honestly never seen anything quite like “Cambodian Rock Band,” my personal favorite of this year’s offerings, so far, and one of the best new shows I’ve seen in twenty years of attending the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

(‘Cambodian Rock Band’ runs through October 27 in the Thomas Theater at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, in Ashland. For information on show dates and times, and the full OSF Schedule, visit OSFAshland.org).

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