Broadway review

‘Cambodian rock band’ makes music from Khmer Rouge horrors, and hero worship in ‘All the Natalie Portmans’

The Daily Beast

February 24, 2020

‘Cambodian Rock Band’ is an excellent part-play, part-rock concert about the legacy of the Khmer Rouge, while ‘All the Natalie Portmans’ makes the actor a much-loved ghost.

Cambodian Rock Band

If you need a ringmaster for your show, one who will make you smile, gee you along, then turn the temperature controls to ice cold and chill every molecule of your blood, Francis Jue is pretty unbeatable.

In David Henry Hwang’s Soft Power, he played “DHH,” a version of the playwright himself. In Cambodian Rock Band, part-play, part-rock concert (which opens Monday night at Signature Theatre, to March 15), he plays Duch, a real-life figure. A math teacher turned—in Prospect’s words—“Pol Pot’s chief executioner,” Duch was one of the Khmer Rouge’s most feared commanders, whose interaction with Chum (Joe Ngo) back in the 1970s forms the dramatic heart of the show.

Just wait for Jue as Duch to still want to charm you into laughter, even after he reveals who he is.

Lauren Yee’s play is about history, memory, family, and reclamation. In 2008, Chum has come to visit daughter Neary (Courtney Reed) in Phnom Penh, where she is part of an effort to get Duch put on trial for war crimes carried out at the infamous Tuol Sleng prison, which he ran, known as S-21, where an estimated 20,000 people were murdered. (Between 1975 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge murdered between 1.5 million and 2 million Cambodians.)

Chum’s family now lives in California, and whatever did happen back in the 1970s in the nightmare of Pol Pot’s Cambodia to Chum is something he wants to forget as much as Neary wants to uncover. The family is American, he says, repeats, shouts. At first his deflections seem funny, then they become raw and emphatic.

The mystery of the past within a family is the first tension and mystery of the show. The second is a stunning set of scenes making clear and graphic Chum’s torture at the hands of the Khmer Rouge (and his guilt over how it was he came to escape). The third movement of the play interrogates the real meaning and cost of justice—and revenge.

In the 1970s, we see Chum as a shy member of a rock band band (the brilliant costumes are by Linda Kho), determined to play their music right up to the Khmer Rouge taking control of the country—massacring and torturing its people, and razing its culture, pop and otherwise, to the ground. At one stage, the faces of those held and murdered at S-21 are projected onto the stage.

This is a thoughtful, ranging play, with humor studded into its all-too-believable pain and trauma. It is also a necessary and illuminating history lesson filled with detail, and written and directed (by Chay Yew) with both care and flair. And it is a very human family drama: Both father and daughter want to do right by the other, to protect the other—even if this means variously wanting to reveal or conceal what happened to Chum, his friend Leng (Moses Villarama), and Duch back then.

Then there is the music on stage: Cambodian surf rock, which combines Cambodian and American music in wonderfully played arrangements by the band Dengue Fever.

Everyone except Jue and Ngo plays multiple characters on stage, with Reed also playing Sothea, the lead singer of the band in the 1970s. Jue makes Duch repellent, cruel, and menacing, and also vulnerable and funny. His key confrontation with Chum comes to be focused around music, and the flickerings of humanity it elicits in Duch (Yee is both generous and utterly unforgiving toward Duch and what he tells us).

It may sound odd to say that after amid the intense drama on stage, the band plays excellent rock music, and then plays a final, rousing set that it feels absolutely right to be on your feet and clapping along to. It says something about how well Cambodian Rock Band is written and directed that this feels appropriate, given its preceding terror.


All the Natalie Portmans

C.A. Johnson’s play (which opens Monday night at MCC’s lovely 52nd Street space, to March 29) is small in scale, with profound reverberations. Tense and witty, and mostly set in a small family apartment, it introduces us first to 16-year-old black teenager Keyonna (Kara Young) and her older brother Samuel (Joshua Boone). They are each other’s best friends and best protectors. They have to be. Their mother, Ovetta (Montego Glover), is mostly absent and unreliable. Chantel (Renika Williams), Samuel’s girlfriend, has her own secret.

Keyonna also loves Natalie Portman. She has seen every film, and recites their strengths and weaknesses—and the central, beautifully played relationship in the play is between the scrappy and vulnerable Keyonna and Natalie Portman herself (played by Elise Kibler). Portman appears before us as a kind of specter.

As cleverly directed by Kate Whoriskey on a small stage, Kibler as Portman emerges from panels in walls, and once, hilariously, from the fridge to haunt and help Keyonna. She is dressed on each occasion as one of her characters, such as Nina in Black Swan (spot-on black feathers and tutu by costume designer Jennifer Moeller). The focal point of Donyale Werle’s stage design is a collage of magazine cutout images of her favorite stars (lots of Portman, obviously).

But what is Keyonna holding on to in this Hollywood celebrity, and why so fervently? Portman is a port in a storm mostly created by the alcoholic and abusive Ovetta, whom Glover brings a sense of unpredictable menace to. But Johnson doesn’t make her beyond redemption (even if the play too-repetitively circles her same demons), and the story also doesn’t make Keyonna into a typical queer teenager.

Both prickly and kind, Keyonna knows who she is. Her challenge is to be open—to love, and to accept love. Young’s excellent, natural performance gives the play its real sweetness and weight; the play flows from Keyonna’s heart, rather than speaking patronizingly at her.