The Mercury News

Pop and genocide intersect in new `Cambodian Rock Band'

Berkeley Repertory Theatre show offers unique look at dark chapter in history

- By Karen D'Souza Contact Karen D'Souza at karenpdsou­za@yahoo.

A cheeky master of ceremonies holds court in “Cambodian Rock Band,” a raucous new play that invites the audience to party with the Khmer Rouge in its regional premiere at Berkeley Rep.

Alas, unlike the famous emcee in “Cabaret,” Comrade Duch is equal parts entertaine­r and monster. Played by the estimable Francis Jue, Duch wisecracks and seduces even as he orders torture and murder on a daily basis as the warden of the infamous S-21 prison camp during Pol Pot's reign of terror.

Playwright Lauren Yee (“Ching Chong Chinaman,” “King of the Yees”), a Bay Area native, explores both the banality of evil and the universali­ty of denial in this intriguing new piece, part history play, part rock concert.

A chilling political tale of the Khmer Rouge framed by psychedeli­c '70s rock music, “Cambodian Rock Band” captures the collective trauma of a country grappling with the nightmare of genocide.

Yee's tonal shifts here are bold and daring, if also sometimes jarring. Jue is as charismati­c as ever, but the role of narrator seems a little tacked on at times. Though the narrative doesn't live up to the hypnotical­ly cool vocals (most songs are created by L.A. band Dengue Fever) in the play's first act, Yee's theatrical alchemy builds as the show unfolds until the music reaches epiphanic heights in the finale.

Digging into the fate of a Western-style rock band, the Cyclos, just recording its first album as the Khmer Rouge takes over Phnom Penh in 1975, the text toggles back and forth in time between the naiveté and bliss of the band's early days and one young woman's contempora­ry search for the truth.

Neary (Geena Quintos) comes to Cambodia searching for her roots and unwittingl­y learns the truth about how her father Chum (Joe Ngo) survived the bloodshed. Her parents don't think much of her ambition to prosecute war criminals, dismissing her social justice work as a time killer. As she quips, “I am the sound of a good LSAT score going to waste.”

In the play's many smartly observed comic scenes, Yee nails the intense love/hate relationsh­ip between Asian American immigrants and the children they sacrifice so much for.

She also captures the unthinkabl­e carnage of the Khmer Rouge regime, the nightmaris­h atrocities that became an everyday reality. Her insights into how quickly moderate voices get drowned out by extremists in perilous times are particular­ly unsettling.

Still, though director Chay Yew deftly evokes the horrors of a prison camp where bodies and souls are crushed as Duch plays cat and mouse with the prisoners, it's the rock concert interludes of this show that unleash the most incendiary power.

Quintos is simply mesmerizin­g as the lead singer of the band, whose electric performanc­es catapult this production into rock nirvana, and the Obie-winning Ngo rivets in his transforma­tion from dorky dad to rock star.

All of the musicians who double as actors are formidable talents, notably Moses Villarama, who plays Neary's boyfriend Ted, and the bass player Leng.

To be sure, it's the transcende­nce of the music, the power of art to redeem the ugliest parts of the human experience, that gives “Cambodian Rock Band” its high-voltage thrills.

 ?? LYNNE LANE — BERKELEY REPERTORY THEATRE ?? Joe Ngo, left, and Francis Jue star in Lauren Yee's intense “Cambodian Rock Band” at Berkeley Repertory Theatre.
LYNNE LANE — BERKELEY REPERTORY THEATRE Joe Ngo, left, and Francis Jue star in Lauren Yee's intense “Cambodian Rock Band” at Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

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