REVIEW: At Berkeley Repertory Theatre, ‘Cambodian Rock Band’ scares up ghosts of the Khmer Rouge, then adds violence and whimsy. It’s a potent blend.
One of my favorite places to see professional theater is Berkeley Repertory Theatre. I have an intense loyalty to the company’s programming philosophy. I know that when I go there, which I try to do almost every time I’m in the Bay Area, I’m likely to see something new, fierce and adventurous.
“Cambodian Rock Band,” which was developed in The Ground Floor, Berkeley Rep’s Center for the Creation and Development of New Work, played at Signature Theatre in New York in 2020. The Berkeley production features most of the same top-notch cast. It’s riveting. (Alas, I saw it late in the run; it plays through Sunday, April 2. But I see that it’s scheduled to play at the 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle in September.)
In this “rock epic,” which includes a live band whose players assume the play’s major characters, a man named Chum (a mesmerizing Joe Ngo) returns to Cambodia 30 years after surviving the Khmer Rouge reign of terror that slaughtered millions of citizens. His daughter, born in the U.S., is already in the country working for an organization hoping to prosecute a man who ran one of Cambodia’s most notorious prison camps. She knows next to nothing about her father’s early life and is annoyed when she learns he wants her to drop the case.
After a tense father-daughter reunion in the present, in which Chum comes across as controlling and perhaps unhinged, we get thrown back to the 1970s in an extended flashback. There we are steeped in the last, frantic days before Cambodia fell. It turns out that Chum was in a Western-style rock band whose members ignored the warning signs and refused to flee as the Khmer Rouge approached Phnom Penh. He is one of the few people to survive the prison camp.
Family secrets are the key, and playwright Lauren Yee and director Chay Yew deftly weave a squirming sense of suspense. Just how did Chum manage to get out of the camp? The audience knows there are revelations to come. At the end of the first act leading into intermission, in a small but devastating touch, Yew raises the volume on clicking military boots on pavement. The sound effect continues throughout intermission, a small but menacing reminder of government-imposed terror.
Yet a slippery sense of whimsy also permeates the material. The rock band of the title turns out to be laughably bad. And even as the horrors of the prison camp unfold, a darkly comic streak continues.
Ngo, as Chum, offers an amazing physical and mental transformation as his character shifts from older to younger. His voice, carriage and outlook is so fundamentally different that it’s hard at first to believe it’s the same actor playing time periods. That’s balanced by the actor playing Duch, the prison commandant. Francis Jue is nominally the narrator of the show, weaving an increasingly unreliable story of his part in the genocide. He’s suave and charming, part Joel Grey in “Cabaret” and part comic trickster, but as the story builds, he reveals himself on a deeper level: chilling, guilt-ridden, wrecked.
Through it all, the live music, consisting of contemporary hits from the band Dengue Fever along with classic Cambodian “oldies,” offers raucous interludes to the unspeakable narrative unfolding on stage. “Cambodian Rock Band” knows how to rage for fun — and how to rage for humanity. It’s a potent combination.
A programming note: On March 31, Berkeley Rep opened in its other theater space the play “English,” by Sanaz Toossi. Here’s a description:
Winner of the Obie Award for Best New American Play and the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Play! Language and identity intertwine in this incisive, funny, and moving seriocomedy set in a classroom in Iran in 2008, where four adult students are preparing for the Test of English as a Foreign Language. But as they pursue fluency in a language that for them represents access, opportunity, and even escape, they find that while English may expand their world, it might also limit their voice.
“English” plays through May 7. It sounds like it could be another show not to miss.