Playwright Lauren Yee’s script is really two shows: an old-fashioned rock concert uncomfortably yoked to a somber history drama.
The music is described by Yee as, “raucous, LOUD, bubblegum, dissonant psychedelic surfer rock.” This is Dengue Fever, a Los Angeles based Cambodian-American band from the Sixties and Seventies, whose songs make up a large part of the show. The band we’re seeing onstage is not in L.A. but in Phnom Penh in 1975, trying to recreate all the moves and sounds of a group that was, I learn, wildly popular. The trouble—for me, at least— is that the lyrics are in Khmer (Cambodian).
The other problem is that the show concludes with a wild, upbeat performance, encouraging the audience to dance in the aisles; this was not happening—not only because the elderly audience who came for theater and not a concert was resistant, but also because the play we’ve just watched bears such an immensely grim historical burden; the clash between the drama and the concert is unsettling and seems disrespectful of the suffering the play bears witness to.
The link between these schizophrenic halves is the lead guitarist (Joe Ngo) whose extreme his devotion to the band turns out to have catastrophic consequences.
Once the American military abandoned Cambodia to Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge (which means Red Cambodia, as in Communist Cambodia); we hear the sound of marching boots right up to intermission. There would follow horrifying prisons and gruesome purges, leaving two million dead. I remember—maybe you do, too—many many years ago going to an anti-war rally where the banner read, “From the People Who Brought you Viet Nam—Cambodia!.”
I was shocked to remember—the 2008 scenes take place in a notorious prison— that I had been to that prison and seen those heartbreaking photographs of the many who didn’t survive. If the set hadn’t kept the audience so distant, if we’d been immersed in the ugly cell and surrounded by those photographed faces, the play might have had more impact. Director Chay Yew makes it too easy for us to just watch. As is so often the case, evil gets the juiciest role. The monster here—the cruel madman who ran the prison— is played by Francis Jue, a brilliant, sly and subtle actor.
The 2008 plot finds the young guitarist now an old man having survived the worst of the reign of terror in his youth. He returns to Cambodia to find his daughter (Courtney Reed, who is also the band’s singer); she has been working to bring the truth about that notorious prison to trial, not realizing how much she has to learn about her father’s past—and how much we need to learn about Cambodia’s recent and terrible past.
[Signature Theatre, 480 W 42nd Street near 10th Avenue, New York, NY] February 4-March 22, 2020; signaturetheatre.org