ABOVE: The cast of Lauren Yee’s Cambodian Rock Band at Berkeley Repertory Theatre includes (from left) Joseph Ngo, Abraham Kim, Geena Quintos and Moses Villarama. BELOW: Ngo and Francis Jue. Photos by Lynn Lane/Berkeley Rep
Cambodian Rock Band is such a unique show that it’s hard to describe. It’s the most uplifting story about human atrocities you can imagine. You could say it’s a play with music, but the music – performed live by the cast – is such an integral part of the story (and the emotion of it all), that you could call it a concert with play. There’s genocide and the uplift of great live music.
Whatever it is, it’s powerful and moving and a joy (and, truth be told, a terror) to behold on stage at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre. The exuberant cast keeps up with every tonal shift, time shift and musical cue in playwright Lauren Yee’s compelling story, and the experience slams the audience this way and that in the best possible way.
The roots of Cambodian Rock Band go back to 2016 and to Berkeley Rep’s Ground Floor new works program. From there, the show has been produced in a lot of places – Oregon Shakespeare Festival, South Coast Rep, off Broadway to name a few – and it’s that off-Broadway production from the Signature Theatre that is making the rounds of major regional theaters, including Berkeley Rep.
Director Chay Yew dexterously blends all the disparate elements of Yee’s script into something wholly original. The show begins as a rock concert circa 1975 in Phnom Penh. The five-piece band is Cyclos, and they’re caught up in the excitement of recording their first album. Then everything changes. The Khmer Rouge led by Pol Pot comes to power, launching a horrifying reign that ultimately led to the death of an estimated 2 million Cambodians. Amid the totalitarian terror, education, music and art were outlawed, and those who practiced such dangerous trades were systematically dispatched.
From the opening concert, we bounce to Phnom Penh in 2008 and the first war crimes trial related to the Pol Pot regime. A young Cambodian-American woman, Neary (Geena Quintos) is part of the legal team bringing Commrade Duch to justice after his stint as director of the infamous S-21 prison, which is estimated to have slaughtered 20,000 people. When the prison was liberated in 1979, only seven people appeared to have survived. But, as Neary discovers, there is a possible eighth survivor, and she needs to locate him so he can testify.
Just as her trial is about to begin, Neary’s father, Chum (Joe Ngo) shows up and wants to bring her back to the U.S. He fled the Khmer regime and doesn’t want his daughter mired in all that horror from 30 years before. But she is insistent, and the father-daughter struggle will delve into some tangled family history that is played out in flashbacks.
To say that Ngo as Chum is extraordinary really isn’t saying enough. He is called upon to sing and play guitar in the band, play the young Chum navigating the nightmare of the Khmer Rouge and play the older Chum, a husband and father and American who would rather not re-live his Cambodian past. By turns funny, sympathetic and devastatingly dramatic, Ngo brings an astonishing level of energy and depth to his character’s remarkable journey.
Quintos as Neary is a defiant but sympathetic daughter following her own quest for justice, but she’s also a powerhouse singer in the band. Moses Villarama plays characters in both of the play’s eras and plucks a mean bass, while Abraham Kim wallops the drums (and some smaller roles) and Jane Lui tackles the keys (and prisoners at S-21).
Former Bay Area resident (but still Bay Area favorite) Francis Jue interrupts the opening concert to act as a sort of host for the evening and to guide us back and forth in time until he becomes a major player in the drama. Nobody can convey more charm or more menace than Jue, who is truly masterful in this show. And not for nothing, he plays a mean cowbell.
Unlike something like Life Is Beautiful the warmhearted(?) Roberto Benigni comedy(?) about the Holocaust, Cambodian Rock Band is not sappy or easy. Yee isn’t softening Pol Pot’s genocide in any way. The use of music – something the Khmer Rouge considered so dangerous they banned it – and specifically rock music (originals by the band Dengue Fever plus some vintage Cambodian surf songs and other period tunes) emphasizes the raging glory of humanity – and the human connection that art creates – even in the face of humanity at its very worst. An evening that begins as a concert ends as a transcendent event that feels enormous and full of hope.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Lauren Yee’s Cambodian Rock Band continues through April 2 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Running time: 2 1/2 hours (including a 15-minute intermission). Tickets are $21-$122 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit berkeleyrep.org.