‘Cambodian Rock Band’ uniquely revisits dark history chapter

A cheeky master of ceremonies holds court in “Cambodian Rock Band,” a raucous new play that invites the audience to party with the Khmer Rouge in its regional premiere at Berkeley Rep.

Alas, unlike the famous emcee in “Cabaret,” Comrade Duch is equal parts entertainer and monster. Played by the estimable Francis Jue, Duch wisecracks and seduces even as he orders torture and murder on a daily basis as the warden of an infamous prison camp during Pol Pot’s reign of terror.

Playwright Lauren Yee (“Ching Chong Chinaman,” “King of the Yees”), a Bay Area native, explores both the banality of evil and the universality of denial in this intriguing new piece, part history play, part rock concert. A chilling political tale of the Khmer Rouge framed by psychedelic ’70s rock music, “Cambodian Rock Band” captures the collective trauma of a country grappling with the nightmare of genocide.

Yee’s tonal shifts here are bold and daring, if also sometimes jarring. Jue is as charismatic as ever but the role of narrator seems a little tacked on at times. While the narrative doesn’t live up to the hypnotically cool vocals (most songs created by L.A. band Dengue Fever) in the play’s first act, Yee’s theatrical alchemy builds as the show unfolds until the music reaches epiphanic heights in the finale.

Digging into the fate of a Western-style rock band, the Cyclos, just recording their first album as the Khmer Rouge takes over Phnom Penh in 1975, the text toggles back and forth in time between the naivete and bliss of the band’s early days and one young woman’s contemporary search for the truth.

Neary (Geena Quintos) comes to Cambodia searching for her roots and unwittingly learns the truth about how her father Chum (Joe Ngo) survived the bloodshed. Her parents don’t think much of her ambition to prosecute war criminals, dismissing her social justice work as a time killer. As she quips, “I am the sound of a good LSAT score going to waste.”

In the play’s many smartly observed comic scenes, Yee nails the intense love/hate relationship between Asian American immigrants and the children they sacrifice so much for.

She also captures the unthinkable carnage of the Khmer Rouge regime, the nightmarish atrocities that became an everyday reality. Her insights into how quickly moderate voices get drowned out by extremists in perilous times are particularly unsettling.

Still, while director Chay Yew deftly evokes the horrors of a prison camp where bodies and souls are crushed as Duch plays cat and mouse with the prisoners, it’s the rock concert interludes of this show that unleash the most incendiary power.

Quintos is simply mesmerizing as the lead singer of the band, whose electric performances catapult this production into rock nirvana, and the Obie-winning Ngo rivets in his transformation from dorky dad to rock star.

All of the musicians who double as actors are formidable talents, notably Moses Villarama who plays Neary’s boyfriend Ted and the bass player Leng.

To be sure, it’s the transcendence of the music, the power of art to redeem the ugliest parts of the human experience, that gives “Cambodian Rock Band” its high-voltage thrills.

Contact Karen D’Souza at [email protected].


Through: April 2

Where: Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley

Running Time: Two hours, 30 minutes, one intermission

Tickets: $21-$122; 510-647-2949, www.berkeleyrep.org

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