Pat Launer, Center Stage on KSDS JAZZ88
June 21, 2013
There’s a recent bestselling novel about Cambodia called “In the Shadow of the Banyan.” That could be the subtitle of the searing Mo`olelo Performing Arts Company production of “Extraordinary Chambers,” also set in that scarred, war-ravaged country. It’s a blazing tale of cross-cultural mis -communication, and the awful things people are compelled to do in the name of love.
David F. Weiner’s evocative set features the intricate, gnarled, primeval root system of two banyan trees, which practically overtake the stage. They reflect the tortured roots of a country that nearly destroyed itself, and the tortuous relationships we witness, underscored by haunting lighting and sound.
The play, by David Wiener, has had only one other production – at the Geffen Theatre in L.A. in 2011. One of those cast members, the very talented Greg Watanabe, appears in this showing, too, but in a different role.
Under the wonderfully astute direction of Seema Sueko, he and his fellow ensemble members are superb.
Manny Fernandes and Erika Beth Phillips are wholly credible as the American couple who come to Cambodia in a state of inner torment, he for a business deal, she for a getaway, after they suffered a personal trauma. Their guide is the deferential Sopoan , marvelously played by Albert Park, with tenderness barely disguising his anguish.
Whenever Sopoan isn’t guiding and protecting his American charges, he’s telling us harrowing stories of his ruthless treatment in the “killing fields” of the Khmer Rouge, the Communist regime that, over the course of 25 years, murdered 25% of their country’s population – two million people. Sopoan has spent his life searching for the beloved wife he lost when he was taken away — as were his glasses, because no one who could potentially read was tolerated. Everything was controlled, from clothing color to thoughts. With his sharp imagination and singleness of purpose, Sopoan managed to survive.
Now he works for Dr. Heng , a wealthy man with considerable power, who considers himself a ” facilitator.” Watanabe powerfully invests Heng with a surface calm and a seething, frightening underside. Heng’s wife is less contained; she’s brutally honest and socially aggressive. But she can also perceive and eliminate pain, both literally and figuratively.
Amid language divergences and marital discord come a couple of shocking revelations that leave us breathless, wondering who these people really are, and what we’d do if we were confronted with their moral quandaries.
Along the way, we learn the source of the play’s title, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, a U.N. tribunal which is bringing some of the highest profile Khmer Rouge to trial. But we also learn that in times of national genocide and its excruciating aftermath, everyone is complicit in some way. That’s the most painful lesson of this riveting personal and political story, one that will stay with you long after the lights come down on the gut-wrenching action.
The Mo`olelo Performing Arts Company production of “‘Extraordinary Chambers” runs through June 30, at the 10th Avenue Theatre downtown.
©2013 PAT LAUNER