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Theater Review: "Cambodian Rock Band"

“Cambodian Rock Band” plays through March 25, 2018 at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.
Photo credit:
Jordan Kubat/SCR

Cambodian psychedelic surf-rock music provides both the backdrop and the catalyst for truth-telling in the world premiere of Lauren Yee’s enchanting “Cambodian Rock Band,” playing through March 25 at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa.

The active rock music scene in 1960s-1970s Cambodia was nearly wiped out with the murder of 2 million people during the four-year reign of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. High on that extermination list were educated people, artists and musicians.

Many Cambodians were evacuated to the U.S., and  Long Beach, Calif. became home to the largest community of Cambodians in the nation.

“Cambodian Rock Band” jumps in time between 1975, 1978 and 2008, when we meet Cambodian American Neary (Brooke Ishibashi). She is in Phnom Penh helping to prepare for the war crimes trials against the Pol Pot regime when she gets an unannounced visit from her dad Chum (Joe Ngo), a Pol Pot survivor who is not much impressed with her apparent boyfriend Ted (Raymond Lee). Chum wants her to come back to the U.S. and go to law school.

The show’s narrative content is a curious and beguiling combination of the moving narrative story of Neary and her father – attempting to connect after all those years – and the harrowing history of the four-year murderous reign of Pol Pot (1975-78). And it’s enlivened by music – psychedelic surf-rock, some ballads in English and Khmer, some straight rock songs – played by six actors in various combinations.

These talented people act (some multiple roles), play instruments, speak (and sing) Khmer and perform 13 songs, many by the popular contemporary Cambodian rock band Dengue Fever.

“Cambodian Rock Band” was commissioned by South Coast Repertory’s Crossroads Initiative, a program that brings playwrights into Orange County to explore the local communities. Yee, a UCSD MFA well known in these parts, happened onto Anaheim’s annual Cambodian Music Festival and later a Cambodian festival in Long Beach, where she met the current members of Dengue Fever and heard stories from Cambodian Americans.

The show starts as a concert emceed by the charming Duch (Daisuke Tsuji). We will later find out that he is a war criminal (and former math teacher) who ran S-21, the most notorious prison where thousands were tortured and murdered. All except seven survivors. Or maybe there’s an eighth.

It’s a wonderful, strange, moving, tuneful (even toe-tapping) experience, one like no other. Better hurry – “Cambodian Rock Band” has a short run, closing March 25. Get there if you can.

The details

“Cambodian Rock Band” plays through March 25, 2018 at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

Tuesday through Friday at 7:45 pm; Saturday and Sunday at 2 and 7:45 pm

Tickets: (714) 708-5555 or www.scr.org