The Lost Treasures in “Cambodian Rock Band”

Matthew Yee, Peter Sipla, Aja Wiltshire, Eileen Doan, Greg Watanabe; Photo by Liz Lauren courtesy of Victory Gardens

Presented by Merrimack Repertory Theatre
A co-production with Victory Gardens Theatre in Chicago and City Theatre in Pittsburgh
By Lauren Yee
Directed by Marti Lyons
Featuring the songs of Dengue Fever, Sinn Sisamouth, Voy Ho, and Rose Serey Sothea
Cast includes Eileen Doan (Pou, keyboards), Albert Park (Duch), Christopher Thomas Pow (Leng/Ted, guitar), Peter Sipla (Rom, drums), Greg Watanabe (Chum, bass),  and Aja Wiltshire (Neary/Sothea, vocals).

Oct 16-Nov 10
Merrimack Repertory Theatre 
Lowell,MA
MRT on Facebook 

Review by Shiyanbade Animashaun

(Lowell, MA) The history one learns from Cambodian Rock Band will vary based on previous knowledge of the Cambodian genocide, the Vietnam War, and other geopolitical histories of that era. Lauren Yee’s narrative blends details about how characters survived genocide with elements from the real stories of countless others. Yet, one doesn’t leave the theater with fresh tears of sadness, rather, with smiles over tear-stained faces. The actors, particularly the father-daughter pair of Chum (Greg Watanabe) and Neary (Aja Wilshire), have both very touching and comical exchanges throughout the over 2 hour run time. 

It weaves together a portrait of a father, a mystery, history, and amazing music. From the pre-show announcement to ‘cold open’, both in Khmer, audiences are taken on a ride between the 70’s to the early 2000s features a band from the 70s, singing in Khmer.

Watanabe is chameleon-like as he shifts through stages of life. At times he is a father trying to keep his daughter from his past, at others a young man pleading with his friends to leave their homes. AlbertPark did a great job lightening the mood with the comedic tones he brought to his roles as fun-loving pseudo-narrator, and excited band groupie enjoying the last songs with the audience. This is especially meaningful as his main role as Duch embodies a cold man pushing away guilt over how well he “just followed orders.”

Transitions between scenes were well crafted, with Eileen Doan and  Peter Sipla’s keyboard and drum work providing an entertaining backdrop for the stagehands who turned musical trunks into beds and foot spas. Every item seemed to have a purpose and a place. So much so, that when Lowell experienced a blackout, it felt like a seamless part of the show. Afterward, Watanabe, Wiltshire, and Pow were able to take us all back to a very emotional place, without missing a beat.

The instrumentation and vocals were stunning. I particularly admired Wilshire singing with a Cambodian traditional ghost voice technique. To me, it was reminiscent of styles used by the Cranberries and pleasantly airy as the notes grew higher.

Christopher Thomas Pow on the electric guitar was a revelation, and the standing ovation the audience gave at the finale was as much for the music as for the acting. It was also impressive to me how much the play was for Cambodians and didn’t bother explaining itself. Whether it was through mixed language vocals, or offhand comments from Pow about Cambodia-Thai tensions, “Cambodian time,” and religion.

Peter Sipla, Eileen Doan, Matthew Yee, Aja Wiltshire, Greg Watanabe; Photo by Liz Lauren courtesy of Victory Gardens

The twists of this mystery were at times on the nose and delivered with a captivating rawness. Though most of the cast played double roles, they were all very clear and distinct. More than a new spin on a tumultuous time in history, Cambodian Rock Band celebrates an almost lost style of music revived by bands like Dengue Fever and couches a history lesson in one about family, secrets, and loss. Through the hard themes and content, the overwhelming lessons are to unearth what you’ve lost and Rock On.

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