he most fun you can ever have as a critic is watching a talented scribe take a great leap — in both thematic ambition and theatrical accomplishment. “Cambodian Rock Band,” already the winner of a major new-play prize and now on stage in Chicago at the Victory Gardens, is precisely that moment for the talented playwright Lauren Yee.
This new play with music, which has been making the rounds of regional theaters, continues this writer’s fascination with a daughter coming to terms with the past life of her father. This was the theme of Yee’s clever “King of the Yees” comedy, which premiered at the Goodman Theatre in 2017, but that play struggled to get beyond the confines of a work about a relatively affluent, Ivy league-educated artist’s questions of personal identity and obligation, which are now ubiquitous in the American theater and, although internally popular, often strike a general audience as indulgent, boring or both. Yee needed to get beyond herself without losing herself.
And that is precisely what she achieves in “Cambodian Rock Band,” a very moving and geo-politically focused piece (with music by Dengue Fever) that looks at the strife-filled history of that nation in Southeast Asia and, most potently, the era between 1975 and 1978 when the repressive and murderous Communist Party of Kampuchea ruled the land. The Khmer Rouge were tyrants — known for torturing and executing dissidents and, as with most totalitarian regimes, they turned ordinary working people on each other. Fear ruled; freedom died. Their centrality in this play, of course, challenges the pervasive liberal narrative. And that helps Yee avoid familiar tropes even more.
Yee’s central character is a survivor, a man named Chum, played by Greg Watanabe. At the beginning of the play, we meet Chum’s daughter, Neary (Aja Wiltshire), a young American who has gone with her boyfriend Ted (Matthew C. Yee) to Cambodia to investigate the very atrocities that almost destroyed her own father. More specifically, she is looked for a rumored eighth survivor from the notorious prison Tuol Sleng, now a genocide museum in Phnom Penh. If she can find him, that might bring a heinous member of the Khmer Rouge to justice.
There is a bit of that former indulgence in Neary, who goes on about the pressures of going to law school and whatnot, sounding like an apologetic talking head for the writer. But Yee banishes that stuff, which was all over “King of the Yees,” early in the first act and once she immerses us into the flashback plot she has constructed, this work turns out to be a highly sophisticated dive into a number of important matters: how circumstances, and colonial cruelty, aided the rise of the Khmer Rouge, among other nasties; how totalitarian regimes operate; and, most powerfully of all, how some very strong and courageous people learn how to survive.
At the Victory Gardens, where Marti Lyons directs very wisely, Yee is greatly aided by Watanabe, whose performance is remarkable in so many ways, but mostly for its counter-intuitive bursts of joy, thus amplifying the play’s point that optimists are more likely to come through the most horrific of human experiences. Yee, the actor, has in many ways a more difficult job, also playing a guy, Leng, on the other side of one of those great moral fissures that history can open. He is moving, too.
Which brings me to the musical implications of the title. “Cambodian Rock Band” owes something structurally to Tom Stoppard’s “Rock ‘N’ Roll,” another fine play about the evils of totalitarianism and a work that posits music as both a unifying and a subversive force. Both Chum and Leng were in a band together — where Stoppard had the Czech band Plastic People of the Universe, Yee has Cyclo, a 1970s band in Phnom Penh. And their music is integrated into the show.
Their work starts out tentatively but, by Act Two, these mini-concerts are joyous acts of defiance and celebrations of survivorship. The performance of these songs is the one area of Lyons’ otherwise superb production that is not all it could be, mostly because the actors don’t fully communicate the lyrics or switch into that mode of otherwordly communication with an audience common to all great musicians; when I saw that show, they had yet to fully assume the emotional persona of rockers.
But that’s a minor complaint about what really is a haunting, wise, political and personally searing show, a work that will resonant with anyone with a family history of escape and a piece that has the guts to try and get inside of the head of Duch (the complex Rammel Chan), a perpetrator of crimes against humanity and, of course, a claimer of the narrative and the music himself.
Chilling stuff — and triumphant too.
Yee should not look back from here.
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.
Review: “Cambodian Rock Band” (3.5 stars)
When: Through May 5
Where: Victory Gardens Biograph, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave.
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes
Tickets: $25-$71 at 773-871-3000 or www.victorygardens.org