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A brilliant mashup of genres, generations fuels ‘Cambodian Rock Band’

Aja Wiltshire and Greg Watanabe in a scene from "Cambodian Rock Band" at Victory Gardens Theater. | Liz Lauren Photo

With her play “Cambodian Rock Band,” receiving its Chicago premiere at Victory Gardens, Lauren Yee has pulled off a piece of writing so deft as to successfully contain a mashup of genre and tone that barely seems possible.

Crazily clever and compelling, this play is a joyful work about a genocidal history, a gentle dramedy about a father-daughter relationship, an increasingly intense thriller about a friendship put into the most unfriendly of circumstances, a tragi-comedy about a country where music was in its soul until it was banned, and a tale of pursuing justice when survival and innocence are contradictions.

‘Cambodian Rock Band’
★★★★
When: Through May 5
Where: Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln
Tickets: $32 – $65
Info: victorygardens.org
Run time: 2 hour and 25 minutes, with one intermission

There are bad dad jokes and torture, plot contrivances so extreme as to work perfectly, and a genocidal murderer who’s so charming that one might begin to wonder whether Pol Pot — Brother No. 1 of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime — would have been a fun dinner companion.

And oh yeah, there’s a rock band, the driver of the joyfulness.

The music, much of it from L.A.-based band Dengue Fever, is played live on stage by an absurdly talented cast of actor-musicians, under the direction of Marti Lyons and music direction of Matt MacNelly. It’s fun from the start, a jarring combination of Khmer-language lyrics accompanying perhaps the most American of sounds — early ’70s surf music, the type of fast, rhythmic, offbeat, punkish rock that scored “Pulp Fiction.”

At different points, the music is interrupted, sometimes by amusing declarations of “Boring!” from our would-be narrator, played just plain brilliantly by  Rammel Chan. As Duch (pronounced “Doik”), a historical figure who was the only Khmer Rouge leader to stand trial, the charismatic Chan lays claim to being the teller of the tale, the host of our historical review.

Rammel Chan (from left), Matthew Yee and Greg Watanabe star in Lauren Yee’s “Cambodian Rock Band” at Victory Gardens Theater. | Liz Lauren Photo

But he’s not. It’s really the story of Chum (Greg Watanabe), who fled Cambodia to America in 1974 and now returns in 2008 to try to bring his daughter Neary (Aja Wiltshire) back home. She should give up, he insists, on trying to bring Duch to justice, on locating that survivor of the Duch-led prison who might be the key to getting a conviction. In Watanabe’s hands, Chum transforms, in flashbacks, from a goofy, embarrassing father to a young adult bass player who can see horrors coming but still waits just a bit too long to leave.

Matthew C. Yee plays Neary’s boyfriend Ted in 2008 and Chum’s best friend and guitarist bandmate Leng in the flashbacks. Like all the performers here, he’s great all around, but he’s both an especially expressive guitarist and particularly commanding when the young Leng finds himself in a job he most certainly never wanted.

The scenes between Watanabe and Wiltshire are great, but not as great as those between Watanabe and Yee, which may even be surpassed by the scenes between Watanabe and Chan.

You get the point. There really isn’t a dull moment in “Cambodian Rock Band,” but the variation in what is entertaining about it couldn’t be more disparate from the first act to the second. What’s so remarkable is that Yee pieces this all together in a style that itself captures the weirdness of how history can switch from serene to terrifying, and how those who survive brutal dictatorships have some profound understanding of how humans — ordinary humans — are capable of both love and evil, and sometimes both at the same time.

Steven Oxman is a local freelance writer.