The Spotlight: Greg Watanabe in ‘Extraordinary Chambers’ at the Geffen Playhouse
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Tour guide, photographer, witness to genocide: the character of Sopoan carries a shattering secret in David Wiener’s haunting play “Extraordinary Chambers.”
Played by Greg Watanabe, Sopoan is partly based on a high school physics teacher the playwright met during a trip to Cambodia in 2008. A survivor of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, the teacher became the impetus for Wiener’s drama.
In the play, Sopoan calmly recounts crawling into a termite mound to avoid capture — his crime was wearing glasses, which meant that he could read — and his anguished search for his young bride. But that was the past. In his new life, Sopoan works for the enigmatic Dr. Heng (François Chau), a “facilitator” who strikes a desperate alliance with an American businessman (Mather Zickel) and his restless wife (Marin Hinkle).
“Sopoan is our emotional conduit into the dark part of Cambodia’s history,” explains Wiener. “The role required someone who could bring incredible sensitivity and power to the role. Greg is instantly credible.”
The Japanese American Watanabe, raised in Orange County, was recently nominated for an L.A. Drama Critics Circle Award for “The Happy Ones”; he played a Vietnamese emigrant who befriends a man whose family he inadvertently destroyed. But the charismatic Watanabe doesn’t just do serious drama: “I’m part of an Asian American sketch comedy troupe, 18 Mighty Mountain Warriors. We do a lot of cultural satire.”
Watanabe plays Sopoan with an uncanny self-possession, as someone who lives in the now out of necessity. “He has a line, ‘You cannot think about things you do not have.’ He’s taken that to heart.”
Or has he? The play’s title refers to both the special courts convened to prosecute Khmer Rouge leaders and the mysterious chambers of the heart.
“The play becomes Sopoan’s story,” Watanabe says. “[Director] Pam MacKinnon has me doing all the set changes so my character is continually present. So much is destroyed in his world. But there is a burning ember he keeps alive.”
At the Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at the Geffen Playhouse through July 3.
Above: Greg Watanabe at the Geffen Playhouse. Credit: Michael Robinson Chavez/Los Angeles Times