Lauren Yee Recalls Cambodian Tragedy via Rock Band Cyclo
by Erin Weitzman
It can’t be easy to direct a play that is simultaneously a comedy and a rock concert while telling a story about genocide. But director Chay Yew balances humor and terror adroitly. He captivates us with seamless scene transitions and spectacular lighting.
Lauren Yee’s play “Cambodian Rock Band” transports us to the 1970s as the show opens with two rocking Dengue Fever songs. We are introduced to Geena Quintos as Sothea, the powerful lead vocalist of a 70s rock band called Cyclo.
Quintos demonstrates her fantastic versatility by hitting angelic head vocals in the ballads and rocking out on the upbeat songs. Then, she embodies Neary, a driven Cambodian American rights worker on a mission in 2008 Cambodia to find a survivor of the infamous S-21 prison.
We first see the remarkable, talented Joseph Ngo shredding an electric guitar. And Ngo also plays Chum, Neary’s comical father, who arrives unannounced to take her home to the U.S. Ngo and Quintos slip easily from young bandmates to Cambodian Americans on clashing missions.
First seen jamming on bass, we meet astounding Moses Villarama, who transforms into Ted, Neary’s boyfriend, with easy charm and wit. Villarama slips from musician to Ted and later to a prison guard—with emotion and elegance.
Jane Lui, who plays keys, and Abraham Kim on drums also re-enter as characters in the drama.
As master of ceremonies, energetic and hilarious Francis Jue plays Comrade Duch, who is not in the band, but becomes an ominous presence. Duch, a math teacher turned Khmer Rouge commander, talks directly to us—with both thrilling comedy and chilling terror.
Full of twists and turns, “Cambodian Rock Band” tells the story of hard-working Neary trying to bring justice to innocent victims of the Cambodian Genocide. When Neary discovers her dad’s unexpected connections to the genocide, her shock reverberates with us.
As an original member of the young rock band, her father was recording an album at the moment the Khmer Rouge took over the city. While the rebellious band begins as links between scenes, Cyclo becomes crucial to the drama as it unfolds.
Quintos, Ngo, and Villarama take on fresh roles as young, enthusiastic members of Cyclos. Playwright Yee makes the band the linchpin to the cruel history of the Khmer Rouge as they make Cambodia into a prison and a murder machine.
While the flashbacks to the band enrich the father’s story, some scenes in Act Two in the terrible prison slow down the pace. The musical play loses focus but then picks up again. Rock and roll meets evil and torture in shocking scenes.
I found myself forgetting I was in a theater for the whole first act. The cast is incredibly talented. They have the audience on their feet and dancing by the end of this witty, wonderful, well-made show! Together, we all shout: “Cyclo”!
“Cambodian Rock Band” by Lauren Yee, featuring songs by Dengue Fever, directed by Chay Yew, a Signature Theatre production, at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Info: BerkeleyRep.org – to April 2, 2023.
Cast: Francis Jue, Abraham Kim, Jane Lui, Joseph Ngo, Geena Quintos, and Moses Villarama.
Banner photo: Geena Quintos and Jane Lui. Photos: Lynn Lane