"Cambodian Rock Band" at La Jolla Playhouse. Photo by Jim Carmody
“Cambodian Rock Band” is a stirring work of theater that comes along not nearly enough. Its intuition for creating moments on the stage is keen, its comingling of insight and emotion rare. What Lauren Yee’s play may accomplish most artfully, however, is juxtaposing tragedy on both a mass and an intimate scale with a celebration of music at its most cathartic and redemptive.
Yee is a 2012 MFA graduate of UCSD’s Department of Theatre and Dance and one of the hottest playwright in the country. It’s fitting that her “Cambodian Rock Band,” which she says was inspired by first hearing the Cambodian and American band Dengue Fever during her student years, is onstage at La Jolla Playhouse on the UCSD campus. The play-with-music was commissioned by the South Coast Repertory Theatre in Orange County, where it opened to raves last year. The Playhouse staging, directed by Chay Yew, is a co-production with Portland Center Stage at the Armory.
Songs by the L.A.-based Dengue Fever are featured in “Cambodian Rock Band” and are performed by the cast members. Jangly and propulsive, the music is an urgent and atmospheric amalgam of ‘60s surf rock, garage rock and psychedelia.
As immersive as the live music is, the story of “Cambodian Rock Band” – a young woman (Brooke Ishibashi) named Neary in Phnom Penh working to bring to justice a Khmer Rouge war criminal (Daisuke Tsuji) – is taut with human drama. Neary’s father Chum (Joe Ngo) surprises her at her hotel, and soon a long-kept secret about his past in his native Cambodia comes to the fore. He tells his story in Act 2, when the full depth of the Khmer Rouge brutality is laid bare.
Ngo’s performance, both with and without an electric guitar, is an unforgettable one.
The brilliance of “Cambodian Rock Band” is its facility for shifting but also sustaining mood while never straying from its conscience and soul or from the cautionary messages it imparts. The potency of Cambodia’s music is an affirmation of a people’s survival and courage in the face of humanity at its worst. So too is the love between a parent and child demonstrated as transcendent and unbreakable.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 11/20/19.)
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.