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Paulanne Simmons

Old Wounds Reopened

“Cambodia Agonistes”
Directed by Tisa Chang
West End Theatre
263 West 86th St, 2nd Fl., at Broadway
Wed. thru Sat. at 7:30 p.m., Sat. and Sun. at 3 p.m.
$49 (212) 279-4200
Opened Nov. 2, closes Nov. 30
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons Oct. 30, 2005

The histories of repressive regimes are distressingly similar. In fact, it is this very similarity that often makes the story so compelling.

“Cambodia Agonistes,” which Pan Asian Repertory Theater is currently remounting at the West End Theatre, uses dance, music and speech to tell the story of a traditional Cambodian dancer (Lydia Gaston) who suffers through the atrocities of the Cambodian Dictator (Ron Nakahara) and is eventually found wondering the streets of NYC, blinded by the memories of what she has seen.

Cambodia Agonistes was written by Ernest Abuba, who drew his inspiration from a 1979 newspaper photo of a young Southeast Asian woman walking down a dusty road while holding a dead child, the stories of Southeast Asian female refugees living in California who suffered from blindness with no clinical cause, and his Buddhist belief that both good and bad can reincarnate themselves. His text freely mixes politics, religion and Asian culture.

The music was composed by Louis Stewart who mines operatic and Asian traditions to create a score so unique it is impossible to classify. At the same time the music is both distinctive and integral to the plot.

Cambodia Agonistes is directed by Tisa Chang, who not only staged the play, but also helped name it, borrowing the word “agonistes” from Milton’s dramatic poem “Samson Agonistes,” which also deals with blindness.

The Dancer’s story is told in a montage of scenes that shift from the present in New York City to the Dancer’s memories of Khmer Rouge camps in Cambodia. Musical numbers include “Whatever Happened to Angkor Wat?” (a temple that is symbolic of the golden age of Cambodian civilization) in which four politicians from the East and West (represented by cartoon cardboard heads) dance about the stage and decide the fate of Cambodia; “Splendors of Cambodia Long Ago,” which recalls the height of Cambodian culture; and the anguished “Little Basket That Is So Round.”

Cambodia Agonistes is performed by an excellent ensemble cast that masterfully takes abstract themes and expression and makes them personal.

At a time when new worries beset the world, it’s easy to forget old atrocities – the past killings, torture and intimidation we’d like to forget to make room for new ones.

Cambodia Agonistes is a powerful reminder that history repeats itself.

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