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On Theater: Rock and revenge clash on SCR stage

On Theater: Rock and revenge clash on SCR stage
Actors Brooke Ishibashi, Joe Ngo, Jane Lui and Raymond Lee perform in “Cambodian Rock Band,” a play making its world premiere through March 25 at South Coast Repertory. (Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

For those whose knowledge of Cambodia is limited to movies like "The Killing Fields" or "Apocalypse Now," further enlightenment is being offered on the Julianne Argyros Stage of South Coast Repertory.

"Cambodian Rock Band" by Lauren Yee is the world premiere of a part-concert, part-drama production in which these two elements eventually fuse into a single entity. It's a powerful, scorching yet somewhat disturbing examination of Southeast Asia in the late 1970s under the imaginative direction of Chay Yew.

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Set in three alternating years — 2008, 1975 and 1978 — the play focuses on a Cambodian American woman tasked with uncovering a brutal Khmer Rouge leader of the '70s. The cast performs songs by Long Beach band Dengue Fever.

Most actors are double-cast. The investigator (Brooke Ishibashi) also is a band singer, while her boyfriend (Raymond Lee) takes on a grimmer assignment in a Khmer Rouge prison. Ishibashi turns in a compelling performance and her stage energy is commendable.

Particularly effective is Joe Ngo, playing the young woman's father, a survivor from the '70s who returns to keep a date with his daughter and destiny. Ngo appears comical at first as he arrives, tourist-like, in Phnom Penh, but his true nature creeps slowly to the surface.

Riding herd on each, and serving as a wily narrator, is Daisuke Tsuji, a standout of the cast. His chatty tone is intended to put viewers at ease, but he is most memorable as the brutal Communist leader in Cambodia's most notorious prison from which few escaped.

What slows the pace of the play, ironically, is the title element itself. Music of the loud, indecipherable sort, with lyrics sung in Cambodian, may appeal to a younger, hipper crowd, but more vintage ears will recoil in terror.

The major perpetrators are the speakers, posted in the audience area, which provide unnecessary amplification. Earplugs, provided by the ushers, may offer temporary, but not complete, relief.

An overabundance of music, at the expense of plot development, constrains this world premiere drama from achieving its full potential. "Cambodian Rock Band" is a mixed bag of sound and substance at South Coast Repertory.

If You Go

What: "Cambodian Rock Band"

When: Through March 25; 7:45 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays and 2 and 7:45 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays

Where: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

Cost: Tickets start at $23

Information: (714) 708-5555 or scr.org.

TOM TITUS reviews local theater.

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