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REVIEW: Music a powerful force in 'Cambodian Rock Band'

Music fills the minds and memories of the Cambodian people and is a central motif in “Cambodian Rock Band,” a story of efforts by the Khmer Rouge to eradicate an ancient culture.

“Cambodian Rock Band” is also a mystery of great sins and dreadful secrets, of fathers and daughters and of a past that cannot and should not be forgotten.

“Cambodian Rock Band,” written by Lauren Yee, directed by Chay Yew and featuring songs by Dengue Fever, opened March 9 in the Thomas Theatre at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

The big concert sound of rock music with amplifiers, heavy percussion, electric guitar, strobes and fog machine opens the OSF production. “Cambodian Rock Band” actors are also musicians in the show and bring back the wild exhilaration of dense rock sounds of 1970s Cambodia, when American music found its way into youth cultures around the world.

We also hear the Beatles, gentle protest sounds of Bob Dylan, and the poetry and melodic strains of traditional Cambodian musical arts. Music in all of its forms is a powerful reminder of the past and has a way of both simplifying and amplifying thoughts and emotions.

The play is set in Phnom Penh, Cambodia — in 1975, on the day the Khmer Rouge entered the city; in 1978 in S-21, a Khmer Rouge prison, and in 2008 when Kang Kek lew became the first Khmer Rouge official to be charged with crimes against humanity.

The progression in “Cambodian Rock Band,” from disbelief to terror to resolution and finally joy, is harrowing and visceral.

The collapse of the South Vietnamese government in 1975 ended U.S. involvement in Vietnam. President Gerald Ford abruptly pulled American troops out of Cambodia, leaving Phnom Penh without defense in the midst of a civil war. The Khmer Rouge entered the city, took control of the government and renamed Cambodia as the Republic of Democratic Kampuchea. What followed under Pol Pot’s reign were four years of economic instability, starvation and genocide. More than 2 million minorities, academics, artists, dissidents and ordinary people were tortured and killed. The deaths of 200,000 men, women and children were meticulously recorded in a prison designated as S-21 under the administration of Kang Kek lew, or Comrade Duch. We see photographs of the dead in “Cambodian Rock Band” and can’t help but weep.

Daisuke Tsuji has the role of Comrade Duch and is a trickster, a shape-shifter, a demon and a math teacher. We see Tsuji as Duch throughout the play; he’s our DJ to hell and morphs from a slick nightclub announcer fronting a rock band into a killer who can’t sleep. Tsuji engineers the swings in time and space with a wink, a corny joke and the kick of his patent leather shoes. Later, his entire demeanor changes and Tsuji as Duch settles into an uneasy authority, garbed in drab clothing with a red Khmer Rouge scarf wound about his neck. A thousand and one nights of music soothes this monster’s soul and staves off a single execution when so many are killed.

It’s not unusual for elders to be silent about experiences that were terrible or shaming, keeping their families in darkness about past lives. Whether because of acculturation, assimilation or fear, Chum, who is played by Joe Ngo, admits that his silence is because he wants a better life, a new start in America for his daughter, Neary. Neary, who is played by Brooke Ishibashi, has that new life unfettered by memory: She has a Thai boyfriend, works for an NGO seeking justice in Cambodia, and with a brilliant, clear mind and focused concentration is determined to seek out the truths of her heritage.

Chum’s character as portrayed by Ngo starts out as comic, a helicopter parent who maxes out his credit card returning to Cambodia. He seems to have no higher desire than to go to a fish spa and eat at the buffet. Ngo is superb as his body straightens, his paranoia accelerates and his memories freshen at being back in the land of his youth under the reign of Pol Pot.

The Thomas Theatre is set up in three-quarter thrust for “Cambodian Rock Band,” the stage extending into the audience, which sits on three sides. Because most of the action is toward the front of the set, the best seats are in that front section; at times though, the bright concert lights shine directly into the eyes of persons sitting in Row D, so rows above or below that one may be preferred. Floor-level side seats have the advantage of an incredibly intimate view, and audience seated here may be invited to join the performers on the floor to rock out in a spectacular big concert finish.

“Cambodian Rock Band” premiered in 2018 at the South Coast Repertory Theatre, Costa Mesa, California, with most of the actors that we see in the OSF production. Chay Yew directed the South Coast Rep show and also “Hannah and the Dread Gazebo” at OSF in 2017.

Yew says “Cambodian Rock Band” recalls a terrible time in Cambodian history and reminds us that governments have no right to silence its people and their culture. The play shows us how close nations can come to the brink of inhumanity, and how often they’ve willingly stepped into that breach. “Cambodian Rock Band” shows us that music can somehow survive to bridge devastation and the distances of time and place and generations. In the face of horror and loss and memory, Yew and playwright Lauren Yee use the enduring power of music to bring tremendous joy and hope and so open our hearts.

“Cambodian Rock Band” continues in the Thomas Theatre through Oct. 27. The show runs about two hours and 30 minutes with one intermission. Learn more about “Cambodian Rock Band” in a podcast interview with Yew on the OSF website. For more information and tickets, see OSFAshland.org or call the box office at 800-219-8161.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Maureen Flanagan Battistella at mbattistellaor@gmail.com.

Joe Ngo(Chum), Abraham Kim (Rom), Brooke Ishibashi (Sothea), Jane Lui (Pou), Moses Villarama (Leng) perform in "Cambodian Rock Band." Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival