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Joy, heartbreak and psychedelic surf rock power a fierce, funny 'Cambodian Rock Band'

Joy, heartbreak and psychedelic surf rock power a fierce, funny 'Cambodian Rock Band'
The cast of "Cambodian Rock Band": Joe Ngo, from left, Abraham Kim, Brooke Ishibashi, Jane Lui and Raymond Lee in South Coast Repertory's world premiere of Lauren Yee's play. (Jordan Kubat / South Coast Repertory)

Psychedelic surf rock is not something Westerners generally associate with Cambodia. If we think about Cambodia at all, we might recall the murderous tyrant Pol Pot, who led the Khmer Rouge in executing more than a million Cambodians in the infamous Killing Fields in the mid-1970s. We might briefly picture a black-and-white slideshow of horrors, like the one the emcee of Lauren Yee’s “Cambodian Rock Band” presents to the audience early in the play, in its world premiere at South Coast Repertory.

“Genocide, genocide, genocide,” sneers our natty, sarcastic, at once sprightly and sinister host, played by the captivating actor Daisuke Tsuji. “Boring.”

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With an eye roll, he has identified the cruelest aspect of genocide: how it overwhelms and paralyzes its witnesses’ capacity for empathy. Faces are reduced to spots on wallpaper. Unique, irreplaceable souls become indistinguishable bodies. Stories dissolve in an ocean of horror.

Theodor Adorno’s famous line “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric” is often interpreted as a prohibition against any artistic representation of genocide. So to say that Yee’s play is a fierce, gorgeous, heartwarming, comedic fairy tale set against one of history’s grisliest mass extinctions might imply that it trivializes suffering. In fact Yee has made her characters so joyfully and ridiculously human that it’s impossible — to a heartbreaking degree — not to identify with them.

This play was developed as part of SCR’s CrossRoads initiative, which calls for playwrights to engage with Orange County’s diverse communities. Yee connected to the Cambodian community through music. Just before the Khmer Rouge took power in 1975, Cambodian teenagers in bell bottoms were developing their own quirky pop aesthetic. Much of their music has been lost; what survived inspired the contemporary band Dengue Fever, whose songs Yee uses as the live soundtrack to “Cambodian Rock Band.”

The cast doubles as a 1970s Phnom Penh band called Cyclo. The pretty female lead singer, Sothea (Brooke Ishibashi), wears a psychedelic jumpsuit and a flower in her hair. The actors perform live, playing their instruments themselves and singing in a mixture of Khmer and English.

Cyclo’s style — loud, fast, rough and jangly — won’t necessarily earn it a rapturous cult following. (SCR offers complimentary earplugs.) And their connection to the story the play proceeds to tell, which is set in 2008, isn’t immediately apparent. The emcee, who might be expected to make sense of these disparate elements, refuses to identify himself or his function in the proceedings. “Are you confused?” he asks us, tauntingly. “Welcome to Cambodia.”

But Yee is such a confident dramatist that we’re perfectly content to wait as she lays out the pieces of her puzzle, never doubting that she’ll put them all together in good time.

After the narrator shoos the band offstage, we flash to 2008 and meet Neary (also played by Ishibashi), a 26-year-old Cambodian American woman. Neary grew up in America but has come to Phnom Penh (beautifully evoked by scenic designers’ Takeshi Kata and Se Hyun Oh’s floating forest of retail signs) to work for an NGO called the Center for Transitional Justice. With her colleagues, she’s preparing to prosecute a Khmer Rouge war criminal, a man named Duch (pronounced “Doik”) who ran an infamous prison, S21.

One day Neary is surprised to find her 51-year-old father, Chum (Joe Ngo), in her room. He has flown from Massachusetts to visit her without warning. Affable and argumentative, easily distracted, impossible to pin down, Chum won’t explain why he has come. His irrepressible dad jokes and her tense retorts let us know that these two people love each other deeply and don't understand each other at all.

“I am disappointment made flesh,” Neary explains to her loving boyfriend, Ted (Raymond Lee, who doubles as the band’s bassist, Leng). Neary’s father doesn’t express any pride in her accomplishments. He doesn’t seem to think bringing Khmer Rouge criminals to justice is a worthy endeavor, and he treats it as a childish whim that’s keeping Neary from her true destiny, Cornell Law School.

There is, of course, a lot more to the story, and it would be a disservice to the play and the audience to give too much else away. Like Yee’s previous play, “King of the Yees,” which ran at Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre last summer, “Cambodian Rock Band” takes a young woman on a journey into her father’s past, which he has kept secret in a misguided effort to protect her.

The journey is often a fanciful one, more metaphoric than realistic, marked by implausible coincidences, touches of folkloric whimsy and an antic sense of humor that keeps pathos at bay. Director Chay Yew proceeds with a serene confidence in the play that never lets its superficial challenges throw off his fast-paced staging. The cast members, particularly Tsuji and Ngo, are funny and winsome in their double roles — and together, they also make a pretty good rock band.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

‘Cambodian Rock Band’

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

When: 7:45 p.m Tuesdays-Sundays, 2 and 7:45 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays (check for exceptions); ends March 25

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Tickets: $30-$83 (subject to change)

Info: (714) 708-5555 or www.scr.org

Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes

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