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Lydia Gaston, Virginia Wing, and Derek Wong
in Cambodia Agonistes
(Photo © Juyoung Hong)
In Cambodia Agonistes, a woman who has experienced too much horror refuses to see any more. Psychosomatically blind, she wanders the streets of New York City as her mind takes her back to the killing fields of Cambodia. This fascinating but uneven work focusing on the human cost of war, with book and lyrics by Ernest Abuba and music by Louis Stewart, is being presented for the second time by Pan Asian Repertory. (It was first produced in 1992.)

The show's central character is a dancer (played by Lydia Gaston) who used to teach her art to children in Cambodia; then the Khmer Rouge slaughtered her young charges and made her dance on the ashes of the dead. Living through the civil war that raged in Cambodia during the 1970s, she was separated from her infant son and endured rape, humiliation, and brutality at the hands of a merciless dictator (Ron Nakahara).

While the dictator is meant to invoke Pol Pot, none of the characters are identified in the program beyond their archetypes -- e.g., "The Dancer," "Child Who Becomes a Dictator," "Social Worker 1." For the most part, they are broadly constructed and played in an exaggerated, caricatured style. The primary exception is the dancer, whose name we eventually learn: My Huoy.

The structure of the musical is fragmented, perhaps in an attempt to mirror My Huoy's state of mind. The scenes in the past are a mixture of dreams and memories: politicians sing a Brechtian anthem, the dictator sits on a golden throne (represented by a toilet), and My Huoy is warned against bad karma in dream ballets. These dances are quite different from what you'd find in a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical; they are led by Sam-Oeun Tes, a master teacher in Cambodian dance, who appears in a sumptuous gold and red ensemble with a towering headdress.

Stewart's pre-recorded score is semi-operatic, with occasional Eastern influences. Abuba's lyrics are largely dialogue set to music, with occasional flashes of simple rhymes. Highlights include the haunting Act I finale, "I'll Plant You," in which My Huoy buries the bodies of slaughtered children, and "The Soul Is a Nail," a second act number sung by John Baray that outlines elements of Buddhist philosophy. Some of the other songs, including one that's partly performed as a rap number, are less memorable.

Gaston has remarkable presence and conveys volumes through stillness; she's also blessed with a soaring soprano that reverberates throughout the intimate West End Theatre. Virginia Wing is excellent as a sympathetic social worker who helps My Huoy to cope with her past trauma and build a new life for herself. Nakahara, reprising his role in the 1992 production, is surprisingly stilted. The remainder of the cast is serviceable but not distinguished.

Director Tisa Chang stages the action with an elegant simplicity, aided by the sumptuous lighting of Victor En Yu Tan, a spare set designed by Kaori Akazawa, and costumes by Carol Ann Pelletier that incorporates some striking masks. Still, the barrage of images and scenes can be overwhelming, even though a glossary and a chronology of Cambodian history is included in the program. Abuba has packed a great deal into the musical without providing a sufficient narrative framework for the audience to fully comprehend what's going on, and the production's final sequence takes such a melodramatic turn that I wondered if it was meant to be a nightmare. Unfortunately, I don't believe this was the author's intention.

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