Theater Review: “Cambodian Rock Band” — The Rhythms of Betrayal

By Bill Marx

At its best, Lauren Yee’s vibrant play with music offers a compelling exploration of survivor guilt, the urge for revenge, the deforming power of the past, and the impossibility of finding justice for crimes against humanity.

Cambodian Rock Band by Lauren Yee. Directed by Marti Lyons. Staged by the Merrimack Repertory Theatre, a co-production with Victory Gardens Theatre in Chicago and City Theatre in Pittsburgh, at the Nancy L. Donahue Theatre, Lowell, MA, through November 16.

Peter Sipla, Eileen Doan, Matthew Yee, Aja Wiltshire, and Greg Watanabe in a scene from “Cambodian Rock Band.” Photo: Liz Lauren, courtesy of Victory Gardens

Is this a matter of tragic synchronicity? A chance to draw another link between the perfidy of Presidents Nixon and Trump? Cambodian Rock Band offers a stinging portrayal of America’s withdrawal from Cambodia in 1975, which ended five years of involvement in the country’s civil war and left the locals at the mercy of the fanatical Khmer Rouge. Genocide, enabled by our absence, followed. Now we have Trump’s quicksilver removal of our troops from Syria (aside from protecting oil fields), leaving our loyal allies, the Kurds, to face the savage treatment of Turkey’s militias. It is rare that our theater resonates with an international mistake de jour — in this case an American betrayal — let alone focuses on the traumatic past of the Cambodian immigrant community. But these are some of the admirable accomplishments of Lauren Yee’s play with music, which, at its best, offers a compelling exploration of survivor guilt, the urge for revenge, the deforming power of the past, and the impossibility of finding justice for crimes against humanity. And the show is being presented in Lowell, a city with the second largest Cambodian immigrant community in the United States. Bravo to the Merrimack Repertory Theatre!

Structurally, Cambodian Rock Band is made of three elements, two of which interact well enough, the other taking up disappointingly lame domestic tropes involving a troubled father/daughter relationship. Cambodia fostered a vital rock scene before its musicians were silenced, imprisoned, and then murdered by the Khmer Rouge. Through a score by L.A.’s Cambodian surf rock band Dengue Fever, whose music is inspired by that tradition, the infectious pop scene is resurrected; the songs are sung mostly in Cambodian, which proffers welcome authenticity, but makes it very difficult (without the aid of sub-titles for English-speaking audiences) to understand how the tunes connect with the story’s emotional and thematic development.  Sometimes the songs seem to offer sardonic commentary — at other times, they are strictly feel good. The band, a 1970s band in Phnom Penh named Cyclo, (members of which also play characters in the production) is quite good, if a bit too careful of the eardrums of audience members. I say pump music this rocking up — the MRT will  provide earplugs for those who need them. A sample below.

Cyclo’s connection to the plot is pivotal, given that two of its members are rounded up by the Khmer Rouge after they march into Phnom Penh. The pair end up at one of the period’s most notorious prison camps, Tuol Sleng, lorded over by the homicidal bureaucrat Duch (played with sarcastic flair by Albert Park), a sociopath that Yee portrays, somewhat stereotypically, as an impish, self-deprecating monster. (Because our dramatists must cater to liberal audiences, they have a very difficult time dramatizing the banality of evil.) One of the guys becomes a torturer/interrogator, the other an endangered prisoner. These scenes in captivity are easily the play’s most harrowing, an expert study in dominance and submission — along with bursts of courage and self-destruction — in a context of utter moral chaos. One of the musicians escapes, a man named Chum, played with an emotional heft that sometimes strays into excessive frenzy, by Greg Watanabe. He ends up in Somerville, MA.

Alas, instead of exploring Chum’s survivor’s guilt, Yee introduces the play’s weakest element. Flashing forward to 2008, we meet Neary (a lively Aja Wiltshire), a young American who has gone with her boyfriend Ted (a stalwart Christopher Thomas Pow) to Cambodia to investigate those behind the atrocities that threatened her own father. She is searching for the rumored eighth survivor from the infamous prison, now a genocide museum in Phnom Penh. Here Yee falls prey to the standard sentimental contrivances of the father-daughter rapprochement. A highly frazzled Chum (is he always that way? Neary seems to think so.) shows up to help out. The jittery give-and-take between dad and daughter leads to a predictable wind-up: we are not given a concrete sense of how Chum’s past shaped him as a father or as a human being in America. (For an interesting take on the Cambodian experience in New England turn to Gish Jen’s novel World and Town.) Marti Lyons’s direction is nimble enough to move comfortably from the superficiality of the script’s opening scenes to the brutal confrontation with nihilism in Tuol Sleng, and it does right by the rock and roll episodes, though the musicians (which include Peter Sipla and Eileen Doan) could exude more punk-ish attitude.

In an interview in the MRT program, Yee says that she was interested in sharing the story’s “joy and warmth.” She does, and Chum’s journey to self-acceptance is enlivened by the galvanic energy of Cyclo. And that is just fine. But the need to conclude with wholehearted celebration — while an understandable strategy for our theater audiences — also limits Cambodian Rock Band’s view of the past. Duch is banished into the dustbin of history, a few photos of his victims flashed on stage. For me, the ending’s pumped up high spirits are undercut by the images of the dead and the horrific scenes in Tuol Sleng, which are being duplicated right now in Turkish jails (see writer Ahmet Altan’s affecting letters from prison, I Will Never See the World Again) and elsewhere. Still, all credit to Yee — few American dramas get this close to the darkness that defies uplift.

Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.

1 Comment

  1. joann green breuer on October 30, 2019 at 6:35 pm

    Just Saw this in Ashland. wonderful assessment. I think the music is care less (not Ful)of eardrums. Unbearably loud at OSF…

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