Cambodian Rock Band blends tragedy and joy into one of the best plays of the year | Theater Review | Chicago Reader

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Cambodian Rock Band blends tragedy and joy into one of the best plays of the year

It’s a reminder that while art can be silenced, it can never be extinguished.

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Near the end of the first act of Lauren Yee's Cambodian Rock Band, the cast delivers a blazing cover of the real-life Cambodian-American rock band Dengue Fever's "One Thousand Tears of a Tarantula." It's the kind of music that makes your syn­apses light up like firecrackers sparking over a riptide of endorphins. It's April 1974. We are in Cambodia. The band is called Cyclos, and its members know exactly how good they are. Their future is incandescent.

Except it isn't. Cyclos's next number is backed by helicopter rotors and the thumping crunch of tanks. The Khmer Rouge is marching into Phnom Penh. Over the next four years, more than two million Cambodians will die. Among the first to be targeted in the genocide that ensued after the Americans pulled out of Cambodia and left it to twhe Khmer Rouge will be the artists.

Cambodian Rock Band doesn't flinch from portraying Cambodia as the killing field it became under Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge. Yee puts torture on stage as well the aftermath that has scarred generations. But as the story moves between 2008 and the 1970s, Yee accomplishes something extraordinary: Cambodian Rock Band becomes a huge-hearted comedy as much as a horrifying depiction of humankind's potential for destruction. The comedy doesn't exploit or diminish the atrocities the Khmer Rouge inflicted. Instead, it lives alongside them as a stunning reminder that while joy and art can be silenced, they cannot be extinguished. Marti Lyons's skillful direction makes joy blare from the amps even as tragedy screams from the dialogue.

The plot follows Neary (Aja Wiltshire), the U.S.-raised daughter of Chum (Greg Watanabe), a survivor of the Khmer Rouge. Central to Chum's story is Duch (Rammel Chan), overseer of the S-21 interrogation and detention center. Numbers vary, but somewhere between 12,000 and 20,000 people were imprisoned in S-21. Only 12 survived. Yee uses those numbers to propel the plot, weaving history and fiction into a drama that constantly surprises, even when you can see what's coming.

All the actors play their own instruments onstage, giving Cyclos a sound that veers from giddy melodic joy to dissonant nihilism. Wiltshire's vocals soar about the wailing strings and pounding percussion like a hard-rock benediction. As Leng, Cyclos's lead guitarist, Matthew C. Yee delivers a star turn that melds flawless technique with scorching emotion (Christopher Thomas Pow takes over the role April 22). As Chum, Watanabe hammers home the bass and creates a character that surprises and takes on new dimensions with every word he utters. Chan's Duch is disarmingly charismatic, a war criminal with an irresistible smile and a morally murky backstory.

At the intersection of tragedy, rock, and comedy, Victory Gardens has launched one of the best plays of the year. As for the sound of Cyclos, it will have you wishing that album really existed.   v

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