Jeff Smith 11:59 p.m., Feb. 8
Extraordinary Chambers at Mo`olelo Performing Arts
In 1975, Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge stormed through Cambodia. They killed teachers, poets, artists, doctors, journalists, anyone involved with the government, anyone related to anyone in government. Anyone wearing glasses. Anyone just suspicious.
To create an agrarian collective, writes Francois Ponchaud in Cambodia: Year Zero, "they cut down fruit trees, forbade fishing...abolished medicine and hospitals" and forced people to erase all memory of the past.
Some say the Khmer Rouge murdered everyone with an I.Q. over 100. Between 1975 and 1979, estimates range up to 2.5 million, over 25% of the population. There were at least 20,000 mass graves. As in the movie of the same name, Cambodia - aka. Democratic Kampuchea - became known as the "killing fields."
American officials, horrified by the atrocities, claimed that these numbers far outweighed the Cambodians who died from illegal U.S. bombing. B-52 strikes "only" accounted for 40,000 dead.
David Wiener's drama begins in 2003, the same year the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia was established to prosecute human rights violators. Carter and jet-lagged wife Mara come to the country for business and pleasure. He works for a telecommunications corporation about to seal a major deal. She'd like to see the sights, Angkor Wat most of all. The 12th century Hindu temple is the largest religious monument in the world.
Carter and Mara know nothing about the country or its people. When they go to Phnom Pen to meet with Dr. Heng, he aims a pistol at their eyes.
The play takes a long time to get going. Except for the pistol - and Sopoan's monologues about the horrors, which recall those of Dith Pran, the photo-journalist in Killing Fields - Act one wanders.
Act two, however, pays all the bills with interest. The characters almost begin as "types." By the end, people you thought you figured out warp and stretch into far more complicated beings. The playwright does a deft job of erasing easy labels - even of ascribing guilt - as something much deeper takes hold.
The Mo`olelo production starts with David F. Weiner's excellent set. An ancient gray wall (Ankgor Wat?) looms behind a generic hotel room and Dr. Heng's living quarters. Long, octupus-like roots of spung trees connect them (the elongated tendrils give anyone with a yen for symbolism or anthropomorphism a field day). Jason Bieber's lighting enhances an underlying war motif by having scenes explode into light, like a bomb. Sound designer Joseph Huppert's musical touches come the other way: subtle, rich in microtones, done with violin and cello.
Ably directed by Seema Sueko, the cast offers standout performances by Greg Watanabe (is Dr. Heng the infamous "Doctor" who tortured thousands of people) and Albert Park as Sopoan, who recreates monstrosities through words alone, and whose tale of survival ends in one of the most star-crossed love stories in recent memory.
Esther K. Chae makes much from stares and disapproval, then delivers when called upon. As Mara, the least developed role, Erika Beth Phillips raced through many lines and was occasionally shrill on opening night.
In some ways, the script's a trap set for Carter. Manny Fernandes makes him a seeming innocent, practically immune from human suffering - until he learns what he should have known all along.