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THEATER REVIEW Cambodian Rock Band
by Jonathan Abarbanel, Windy City Times
2019-04-15

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Playwright: Lauren Yee

At: Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave. Tickets: 773-781-3000; VictoryGardens.org; $32-$65. Runs through: May 5

Cambodian Rock Band makes Victory Gardens the go-to, high-energy Off-Loop theater of the moment, thanks to a fictional rock band playing songs composed by Dengue Fever, the real U.S. rock band heavily inspired by 1960s-1970s Cambodian pop/rock. The songs are played and sung by the actors, and it's no mean feat to field an all-Asian cast with both quality acting and musical chops, which wouldn't have been possible in Chicago 15 years ago.

This regional premiere is set in Phnom Penn between 1974 and today, telling two intertwined stories of survival during Pol Pot's unimaginably cruel Khmer Rouge regime, which murdered between 21 percent and 24 percent of Cambodia's entire population in under four year, 1975-1979 ( it would be like Trump murdering 65-80 million of us ). The protagonist is Chum ( Greg Watanabe ), a fictional young 1970s Cambodian rocker ( bass guitar ), who survives the notorious real-life S-21 death prison and lives to have a family in the United States. The antagonist, Comrade Duch ( Rammel Chan ), is a still-living real figure—a math teacher-turned-Khmer Rouge leader who oversaw the torture and execution of an estimated 20,000 prisoners at S-21.

The play's themes aren't original: How might radical political change affect your life and future? what would you do to survive? what would you compromise or cover up? Numerous plays have explored these themes, from Shakespeare to Brecht to Arthur Miller to the contemporary Vietgone ( coincidentally seen earlier this season at Writers Theatre ). What's unique about Cambodian Rock Band is that America's sizable Cambodian-heritage minority is less visible ( and less economically viable ) than other Asian-American communities, so this play offers a peek behind a curtain of sorts.

Under Marti Lyons's direction, Cambodian Rock Band is smashing. Watanabe and Chan are charmingly deft comedians—playwright Lauren Yee excels at smart, often smart-ass comedy—unafraid to use exaggeration for dramatic effect, but equally convincing at impassioned serious moments. Stand-outs among supporting players are Matthew C. Yee as Chum's lead-guitar bandmate and, especially, Aja Wiltshire as Chum's American-born adult daughter and the band's soaring lead vocalist. Yu Shibagaki's mini-rock concert setting and Keith Parham's lighting provide a neutral scene for fluid and swift storytelling.

Cambodian Rock Band is a play with music ( not a musical ) and some songs aren't part of the story. The most important two that are come in Act II when prisoner Chum sings two politically-important songs to Comrade Duch ( one of them a totally-unexpected American song ). Other musical highlights are the Act I closing with its driving drum part ( Peter Sipla ) and the Act II opening ballad, sung by Wiltshire with Yee's lovely liquid lead guitar. Dengue Fever's style is pleasingly retro, echoing fairly primitive late-1960s-to-1970s pre-metal/acid rock. Matt MacNelly is music director.

NOTE: Dengue Fever, the real band, will perform Wed., May 1, at 9 p.m. at Lincoln Hall ( across the street from Victory Gardens ). Tickets are $22 ( advance or $25 ( door ); visit www.lh-st.com .

—From a press release


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