The performance starts with the haunting sound of drums and the moan of a stringed “tro” and, as actors join in a chorus, one feels transported far, far away from the 21st century.
Throughout the two-hour play, Kok Thlok company’s performers plunge spectators into a world of princes resorting to magic to find love and princesses singing of despair and treachery as they danced in shimmering costumes.
A fantastic world, maybe, but one in which actors convey emotions so real that they do not fail to touch the audience.
Kok Thlok’s cast of 21 is staging tonight at the Chenla Theater in Phnom Penh a well-known Cambodian tragedy that students read in high school: “Preah Thinavong and Neang Peo.”
The tragic love story of Prince Thinavong and Princess Neang Peo will be presented in yike damkang—the oldest form of Cambodia’s musical theater yike—in Khmer with English subtitles.
In the tale, Prince Thinavong transforms himself into a leper to find out how people will treat him and whether a woman may love him in spite of this affliction.
Princess Neang Peo does and agrees to marry him over her father’s objections.
Prince Thinavong later regains his true appearance and, after managing to convince the princess that he actually is the former leper, the couple plans to marry.
But the princess’ wicked sisters conspire to prevent her marriage.
Following many turns of events later, the musical play ends in tragedy, but not before two comedians—traditional fixtures of Cambodian theater—have provided moments of laughter while explaining both the story and yike’s conventions, allowing the audience to better follow the performance.
“We decided to perform this story because it is well-known and a famous tale in Cambodian literature,” said Pok Dirama, who portrays the leper prince.
“The story also reflects today’s reality and contains lessons on relationship[s] in a couple,” he said. “It also shows facts that people face in life, such as jealousy, romantic love and kind-hearted parents.”
Turning the play into a two-hour show took about three months, Pok Dirama said.
“[In the past], it took seven days and nights for the whole story to be performed in classical theater,” said Khoun Vuthy, who plays the prince’s father.
“Our people then had a great deal of free time after the rainy season, and so it was fine to have a week-long performance.”
But times have changed, which is why the performance had to be shortened and the number of songs cut from 85 to about 20, Khoun Vuthy said.
Funded by US-based Friends of Khmer Culture, the performance begins at 6 pm and admission is free.
The Kok Thlok company, which regularly tours the country, will present this play in Oddar Meanchey and Banteay Meanchey provinces in a few weeks.