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‘Cambodian Rock Band’ Theater Review: A Fresh Look at the Khmer Rouge That Oozes Suspense

Lauren Yee’s play explores the atrocities of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge with a narrator who’s as funny as he is wicked and warped

Imagine a version of “Cabaret” where the Emcee turns out to be Adolf Eichmann or Klaus Barbie. Now, transplant that reimagined show to Southeast Asia, and you have a glimpse into Lauren Yee’s harrowing and wildly funny play about the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror.  A new staging of “Cambodian Rock Band” opened Monday at Off Broadway’s Signature Theatre, following a number of regional productions of Yee’s play.

“Cambodian Rock Band” begins as a quasi concert, turns into a play with songs (mostly by Dengue Fever), and right before intermission, drops the music to take us into Cell S 21, the Khmer Rouge’s torture chamber where a member of a Cambodian rock band is being held after the fall of the U.S.-backed Khmer Republic in 1975. Each of these transitions is initially jarring, but Francis Jue’s outrageous emcee and Chay Yew’s confident direction use abrupt shifts in the narrative to deliver thrilling theatrical effects.

Jue’s emcee is ultimately so scary because he begins as a smiling high-strung cheerleader, urging us to applaud the onstage band and its brand of psychedelic rock. It’s a style of music that was performed with great success in Cambodia until Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge banned it, along with all other music and forms of creative expression. It doesn’t take Jue’s character long to tell us that, as “you probably guessed,” he’s really Duch, the infamous captain who was once in charge of Cell S 21.

By 2008, only eight people remain living who survived his extermination camp, and a Cambodian-American lawyer, Neary (Courtney Reed), is in Phnom Penh to bring Duch to justice and possibly find that missing eighth victim, if he’s still alive. Her father, Chum, born in Cambodia, objects to Neary’s mission. Playing this protective, socially indifferent man, Joe Ngo delivers a seemingly hokey performance that borders on racial stereotypes from old movies. It’s one of this production’s many jarring aspects, which, like the others, takes time to resolve itself.

Chum, the victim, and Duch, the thug, go on to completely dominate the play’s second half, and the broad strokes of their performances in the first act are an effective set-up for the subtle pas de deux of fear, repression, accommodation and survival that brings them together in Act 2. They are ably assisted in that dance to death by Moses Villarama in the role of a guard who once played in Chum’s rock band.

“Cambodian Rock Band” oozes suspense. Early on, Yee introduces a “Sophie’s Choice” secret that, by play’s end, demands to be revealed. This writer knows how to tell a great story.

Robert Hofler, TheWrap's lead theater critic, has worked as an editor at Life, Us Weekly and Variety. His books include "The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson," "Party Animals," and "Sexplosion: From Andy Warhol to A Clockwork Orange, How a Generation of Pop Rebels Broke All the Taboos." His latest book, "Money, Murder, and Dominick Dunne," is now in paperback.