ASHLAND — Some plays reveal insightful segments of little or unknown history. Less common are plays that do so in a style that’s emotionally involving and captivating. And even fewer do so by combining elements of music and culture in a production that’s so powerfully charged as “Cambodian Rock Fever.”
It’s fortunate that “Cambodian Rock Band,” possibly one of the strongest plays ever presented at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, is ground-breaking. Instead of a limited run, it’s the first play ever in the Festival’s Thomas Theatre that will be offered all season long, through Oct. 27. That’s a good thing. In a season already marked by two other powerful offerings, “Cambodian Rock Band” is a must see.
“Cambodian Rock Band” is the story of a daughter, Neary, who learns the hidden history of her father, Chum. As she probes, his life as a young man in 1970s Cambodia is revealed. It was a time of genocide, years when the country was ripped apart by the bloody Khmer Rouge or Communist Party of Kampuchea, when upward of a million people were systemically massacred. It was a time when anyone regarded as an intellectual, including artists and musicians, was savagely killed.
In the play, the U.S. born Neary is living in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, working on a long unresolved case involving the Khmer Rouge, when her father unexpectedly arrives. Initially, Chum is seemingly a cantankerous, old, overly protective father. But Neary learns her father was a rare survivor of the Khmer Rouge’s most notorious prison.
Chum's mysterious, multi-layered story is revealed in a series of flashbacks involving his Cambodian rock band. It's a heart-wrenching story of survival and of unimaginable guilt. His involvement with the band leads to deaths of family members that could have been averted. His imprisonment leads to his own acts of murder (violence). His return to his native land leads to a reunion with his past and searingly painful revelations.
“Cambodian Rock Band” works because Lauren Yee’s powerful story is blended with dynamic staging and blood-pulsing fusion rock ‘n’ roll that blends 1970s American rock ‘n’ roll with traditional Cambodian music. The play resonates because Yee’s script injects humor, mystery, pathos and history.
Translating that drama is a cast of skilled actors. Chum and members of his Cyclos band, portrayed by the band Dengue Fever, are more than intensely rocking musicians. As Chum, Joe Ngo shows multiple sides of his character. Brooke Ishibashi is excellent as his relentlessly probing, emotionally rocked daughter while Moses Villarama, with his snappy pants, plays great music and acts with panache. Even more, Daisuke Tsuji shines, smoothly transitioning into a person of multiple personalities as Duch, the tale’s narrator.
“Cambodian Rock Band” is a compelling emotional journey, one that’s sometimes heart lifting and heartbreaking. There’s abundant comedy, but in the story’s highly charged context sometimes it’s hard to laugh. Expect surprises, smiles and teary eyes.