Review: Partying With the Khmer Rouge in ‘Cambodian Rock Band’

Lauren Yee’s ambitious, tonally mixed play uses bait-and-switch tactics to approach the dark heart of a genocidal regime.

Clap your hands, everybody, and sing along with Pol! That’s as in Pol Pot, the leader of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, which wiped out nearly a quarter of that country’s population during the second half of the 1970s.

All right, to be exact, it’s not Pol himself who’s shaking a tambourine and urging the audience to get up and dance at the Pershing Square Signature Center, where Lauren Yee’s adventurous, tonally scrambled “Cambodian Rock Band” opened on Monday night. Instead, this enthusiastic master of ceremonies is called Duch. That is the nom de guerre of the former math teacher Kang Kek Iew, a Pol confederate known as “Cambodia’s Himmler,” who ran the notorious S21 prison (read: death) camp.

The real Duch, who was the first of the Khmer Rouge leaders to be tried for mass murder, is now serving out a life prison sentence. But Yee, a playwright of great heart and audacity to match, has seen fit to give her version of Duch the run of her brash but conventionally sentimental play, which features the songs of the Los Angeles-based Cambodian surf rock group Dengue Fever.

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