MRT’s ‘Cambodian Rock Band’ Hits All the Right Notes
This past week, Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s latest production, “Cambodian Rock Band,” thundered into the Mill City following runs in Chicago and Pittsburg. The MRT is home to the final dates of this three-theater co-production — fitting, given the Lowell’s vibrant Cambodian culture.
Written by Lauren Yee, a San Francisco-raised playwright currently living in New York, “Cambodian Rock Band” centers on the relationship between a father, Chum, who escaped Communist-era Cambodia to live in the United States, and his daughter, Neary, traveling to Phnom Penh in 2008 to investigate the war crimes of “Comrade Duch,” a former math teacher and Pol Pot’s “chief torturer.” The father-daughter scenes are intercut with scenes from Chum’s younger life when he was the bassist in a rock band.
Prior to the ’70s, Cambodia was a rock-and-roll hotbed — as one character calls it, “the Detroit of Southeast Asian.” However, as the Khmer Rouge rose to power, intellectuals, artists and musicians were singled out as enemies of the state, and their numbers count among the nearly two million victims of the resulting purge. While “Cambodian Rock Band” is a play about history and politics on a large scale, it is primarily concerned with a family, and a daughter’s discovery of her father’s hidden life. It is also, as the title suggestions, about music: wild, raucous and anarchic, with distorted guitars and hypnotic, pounding rhythms. It is music of youth and innocence, and the loss of that innocence is one of the play’s themes.
The cast got over a brief, initial period of stiffness once the apparently clueless Chum, energetically played by Greg Watanabe, stumbled on stage. Watanabe went on to give a powerful and multilayered performance despite having what appeared to be a cold — welcome to New England, Greg.
The cast drew energy from a warm Lowell reception and overall, the actors were remarkable, particularly given that they had to do double duty as a live band. Albert Park was nuanced yet despicable as the vile Duch. Aja Wiltshire, as Neary, seemed to grow in confidence as the evening went on — her final scenes were her strongest. She also possesses, as we discovered in her flashback role as Sothea, a wonderful singing voice.
The role of the music was central to the play. It also served a practical purpose — to break the tension caused by the subject matter’s seriousness and heaviness. It was very easy to imagine seeing the band in a seedy Phnom Penh bar, a reminder that rock-and-roll can be both powerful and a whole lot of fun.
The play reserves its most intense moments for the second act, and it was there when the cast excelled. This act contained moments of such raw emotion that both actors and, judging by the people sitting near me, the audience, were left in tears.
I felt as though I was witnessing something remarkable. “Cambodian Rock Band” works as a family drama, cautionary history lesson and reminder of what drew people to rock music in the first place. If it seems callow to speak of an appreciation for people jumping around onstage holding guitars in the same breath as the horrors of totalitarianism, then you are missing the point. “Cambodian Rock Band” is a theatrical experience that deserves to be remembered long after the final chords fade.
If you’re interested in learning more about the history of rock music in Cambodia, check out the documentary “Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll.”