Though Bumpy at Times, Cambodian Rock Band Is an Exhilarating Ride

Joe Ngo and Brooke Ishibash will never forget. Photo by Jordan Kubat for SCR

Part play, part rock concert, part eccentric comedy set against the backdrop of the Cambodian genocide, Lauren Yee’s new play, Cambodian Rock Band, is many things stuffed into one undeniably entertaining package—stuffed being the operative term. Commissioned by South Coast Repertory (SCR), it’s now receiving its world-premiere production, and the play’s relative newness shows. While fun, fast, flippant, frenetic and fascinating, it also feels less than fully formed.

It does demonstrate the undeniable talent of the rapidly emerging Yee, who graduated from Yale in 2007 and whose play In a Word at the Chance Theater last year couldn’t be any more different from this one. This new play displays ambition, shows a keen grasp of fiddling with playwrighting form, and is a reminder that reimagining, revising or even just revisiting history rank among the highest of a playwright’s callings.

But it’s also rough around the edges, struggles for a clear point of view, and balances uneasily at times on tracks that often don’t head in the same direction: immigrant child attempting to bridge generational and cultural divides with her father; the mostly untold story of the influence of American rock music on Cambodian youth in the 1960s and 1970s; and the hell on Earth unleashed on that country by the Khmer Rouge.

Yet, though bumpy at times, Cambodian Rock Band is also an exhilarating ride.

First: the music. Yes, Yee is a playwright, and words are her currency, but this play wouldn’t have been born without music. The Chinese-American Yee recently told OC Weekly contributor Lilledeshan Bose that in 2015, SCR commissioned her to write a play, putting her up for 10 days in Orange County in hopes of finding an idea. Her stay coincided with the annual Cambodian Music Festival in Anaheim. Dengue Fever, a Los Angeles band with a Cambodian lead singer, played in Long Beach that weekend, and their performance combined with the overall vibe of the festival planted the seed that would ultimately blossom into Cambodian Rock Band.

Seven of the eight songs in the show are Dengue Fever originals, performed by the six-person cast, four of whom play instruments. And just as that band is heavily inspired by the American surf music and psychedelia sounds that permeated Cambodia until 1975 (helped, no doubt, by so many Americans hanging out next door), so is Yee’s play—not just in the playing of that music, but the story behind it.

On the surface, that story is about a first-generation Cambodian-American pursuing a legal case against the ruthlessly efficient Khmer Rouge official who oversaw a notorious prison. However, her father, who left the country in his 20s and has been tight-lipped about his time there, unexpectently arrives in Phnom Penh, determined to halt her foolish case and persuade her to return to America to pursue her law degree. But we slowly learn there is far more to her father’s story than he has let on. The play then switches in time and place, from a recording session in 1975 Cambodia the night of the Khmer Rouge’s seizure of the capital to a Cambodian prison in 1978 to the play’s present day of 2008.

Photo by Jordan Kubat for SCR

The audience not only learns the so-called truth about the father, but also gets a crash course on 1970s Cambodian history, ranging from the geo-political machinations that laid waste to the country to the surprising allure of rock music in Cambodia until 1975, as well as how every trace of it was nearly obliterated.

Director Chay Yew drives everything with a breezy confidence that belies the incredible suffering and horror that much of the play deals with. And his cast is exemplary, called upon to act multiple roles, sing and play music. No one does more than Joe Ngo. In the present, he’s a highly comical, somewhat doddering and simplistic father. In the past, he is both a young lead guitarist and a prisoner.

It’s the character of Duch (Daisuke Tsuji) that is the most charming and problematic, however. Duch is the play’s suave, ingratiating narrator and meta component, from his sly commenting on the proceedings to openly telling the audience at times that he’s basically making up some parts (in Khmer Rouge Cambodia, apparently, memory is an elusive thing). Duch also happens to be the cold-blooded jailer who signed off on the deaths or tortures of some 15,000 prisoners. Yet, the play really isn’t about him, and even though Tsuji delivers an outstanding performance, making Duch the focal point seems off.

Along with some key plot points that are never addressed (just how does someone escape the prison?), that keeps Cambodian Rock Band from completely clicking. But what is here is different, special and about as much fun as any tale involving genocide could ever hope to be.

Cambodian Rock Band at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555; Tues.-Fri., 7:45 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 2:30 & 7:45 p.m. Through March 25. $23-$72.

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