The Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s production of Lauren Yee’s Cambodian Rock Band, currently playing at La Jolla Playhouse, opens like a low-budget rock n roll show: black stage, a few colored lights mounted on steel scaffolding, and five enraptured souls looking to grab you by the ears and shake you until you share in their joy. The lyrics are not in English; the lyrics are not translated; the lyrics don’t matter a bit. The feeling is what’s important, a feeling communicated person to person, thrumming and thrilling. The sound is psychedelic surf rock, but the particular genre doesn’t really matter, either: it’s the energy that’s seductive — the sort of thing that sets feelings free, that sets the self bucking against everything that holds it back.
So is it any wonder that this band, this music, had to be silenced by the Khmer Rouge when it set about establishing a communist utopia? And given that, is it any wonder that the band on the Playhouse stage, despite the retro sound and unfamiliar lyrics, seems to matter? This stuff was actually dangerous to the Powers that Be. And therefore, dangerous to those who performed it. Andy Knight’s essay “The Sound Before the Silence,” included in the program, notes that in the four years after the Khmer Rouge took power, “approximately two million Cambodians would be exterminated…including ninety percent of the country’s musicians.”
That danger is what drives the drama of the play that Yee has written around the band’s performances. (The sets and direction are unobtrusive here; just enough to take you Behind the Music, as it were.) Twenty-six-year-old immigrant’s daughter Neary has journeyed to her father Chum’s homeland in an effort to convict a man named Duch for his crimes as a prison warden for the Khmer Rouge. But Chum has followed his daughter back to “the scene of the crime” to plead with her to drop the whole thing, to stop “looking for a ghost” — in this case, an eighth survivor from Duch’s notorious S-21. A poor soul whose photographed was marked, “Keep for use – for now.” But as we’re told, “nothing stays buried for long” in Cambodia, and the story soon shifts from 2008 to 1975….
It’s a good thing, too. Joe Ngo is arresting as Chum — both present and past — but his manic efforts to distract and then later deal with his daughter are the only real action in 2008. (And even that has to be juiced by a strange disappearance.) 1975 is where the music is: Chum’s band recording its first album even as the communists advance on Phnom Penh. And 1978 — after the music has stopped and Chum has become Duch’s prisoner — is where the danger is.
On the night I attended, understudy James Ryen filled in for Daisuke Tsuji in the role of Duch. Ryen represented a masterful bit of counterintuitive casting. Duch was a math teacher before he become a mass murderer, and it’s easy to imagine him played by someone slight and unassuming: the nebbish turned nefarious, reducing prison populations in the precise, dispassionate way he might reduce equations. Ryen, however, is simply huge; he towers over the rest of the cast, smiling and striding about with youthful energy and manifest power. Cambodian Rock Band is a remembered story — set in the present, but recalling the past — and Ryen’s stature might be seen as an image of the way he looms in memory. But big as he is, he’s not a heavy; instead, he comes off as playful, with an almost childlike innocence about the menace he inspires. It makes his brief displays of rage all the more terrifying, and his tortured sleeplessness almost pitiful.
A parting note: the music is the thing in this play — to the point where the band fires up for an encore after the action has ceased — but Yee is too smart to write a simple paean to the glories of Western influence in Cambodia. Why does Chum want his daughter to drop her investigation? Because when you sell your soul to rock ‘n roll, you tend to ignore the consequences — until it’s too late.