Yesterday, one of my bosses gifted me with his tickets to see Cambodian Rock Band at the Irene Diamond Stage in the Signature Theatre.
Walking to the theater, which is way over on the far west end of 42nd Street, I was struck by how much that area has changed. I used to work near there when Manhattan Plaza opened, which offered affordable rent for people in the theater or film. There was nothing around so food stores and restaurants opened up around it and now there are luxury apartment buildings all over the area, completely changing the look and feel of that part of town.
peg was free and I was happy she could join me. We met in the downstairs lobby and went up and just had to wait a few minutes for the doors to open. Our seats were great – orchestra, Row E and on the aisle. While waiting there was music playing over the sound system – unfamiliar to me but I am assuming they were Cambodian rock and pop songs. Just before the band enters and plays, a Khmer version of “Sugar, Sugar” plays over the sound system. It made me think of M*A*S*H and the Korean versions of American pop songs that played in the camp.
The play is set in Phnom Penh and in three different years – 1975, 1978, and 2008 – and it jumps around the three years with the second half focusing on 1978 and the first half focusing on 2008 but the order is mostly 2008, 1975, 1978. First it is 1975 (although we do not know that yet – their clothes could be a giveaway but fashion today overlaps so much with older styles). The Cyclos style is Cambodian surfer rock or psychedelic rock. In the second of the two songs that the band opens with, the female lead singer moves her arms and hands in that distinctive Cambodian style of dance.
The narrator Duch is played by Francis Jue, who I immediately recognized as the Chinese ambassador from Madam Secretary, and he is an excellent actor. He is funny in a dry way on the show. Here he was more expressive but also very funny. His narration brought humor and lifted up what is a very dark subject. Duch tells us this is his story but he will not enter until later.
It is 2008 and Chum (Joe Ngo) surprises his daughter Neary (Courtney Reed) in Phnom Penh, where she is working at an NGO helping to prosecute people for war crimes from the Kampuchea era. There are then a couple of surprises, which are not difficult to figure out before they happen if you are paying attention.
The one big surprise I did not figure out was that most of the actors were playing dual roles. That type of thing always goes over my head. It happened for Hamilton also. I read the Playbill before the show but the two character names for one actor did not register. Then I read it after the show and a lightbulb went off. Imagine my surprise when I realized the actor playing Lafayette, who I thought was good was the same actor playing Jefferson, who I thought was brilliant. Suddenly, Daveed Diggs is brilliant period. But with Cambodian Rock Band, the “a-ha!” moment came sooner because I saw the actor move from downstage to upstage and strap on a guitar.
At the end of the first half, it is 1975 and the Khmer Rouge are marching into Phnom Penh. All through intermission, the sound of marching soldiers never stops. The Cyclos play at the start of the second act and Duch is walking down the aisle next to me. I could hear him behind me before I saw him but I could not make out what he was saying. I did hear the word “candy” and suddenly the woman sitting behind us is passing forward a plastic bag with two candies left. So, peg and I shared the last of the Starburst.
This half is the more difficult as we quickly move from Year Zero (1975) to 1978 and the infamous S-21, a school that was turned into a prison, where people were tortured and killed. The humor and music still lift up the story and make it bearable. The Khmer Rouge have outlawed everything including music. Many musicians and artists disappeared in the genocide including Ros Serey Sothea, Sinn Sisamouth, and Yol Aularong whose music we have been hearing played by the Cyclos. While in power, the Khmer Rouge killed at least 1.7 million people.
There is a powerful moment when Chum tells Duch that it is his (Chum’s) story and banishes Duch so he can tell Neary the truth.
At the end, the band plays and then invites the audience to dance and Duch roams around with the cowbell and joins in. So as heavy as the play is, it ends on a very light and happy note.
The other actors are Moses Villarama (Ted/Leng – bassist/Cadre), Jane Lui (Pou – keyboards, percussion/S21 guard), and Abraham Kim (Rom – drummer/journalist). Reed also plays Sothea, the singer in the band. Lui along with Matt McNelly, arranged the songs. Ngo in real life is the son of Khmer Rouge survivors.
Many of the songs the Cyclos play are originals by Dengue Fever, a white American band that started playing covers of old Cambodian rock songs and then wrote their own songs that are translated into Khmer and all sung by a Cambodian-American singer.
Lauren Yee has written a wonderful play that does not shy away from the horror and tragedies of Kampuchea but can also make you laugh and sing along. The play has already appeared at other cities around the country (some of the actors have appeared elsewhere in the same roles and for others they are creating the roles for NYC) and in looking at YouTube videos of other performances, I see that each city seems to have its own director. It was interesting to see the different choices made by others but I thought Chay Yew did a great job with the staging. The audience was engaged and, even when a line might have us laughing out loud, we never forgot where these brilliant actors have taken us.
Takeshi Kata’s set was simple and effective. Linda Cho’s costumes were well thought out. David Weiner lights were so good that even in the darkness, we could see everything. And Mikhail Fiksel’s sound design was also very good. I was afraid being up front and with the speakers, we would be blasted by the music but the balance was perfect. Luke Norby’s projection design was also simple but quietly effective.
If you are in NYC, you should go see this before its run ends next month. It will be in Portland, Oregon in June. Look for it.
By Carene Lydia Lopez