Thursday, November 10, 2005

A Survivor Bitterly Recalls Abuses of the Khmer Rouge

Published: November 3, 2005

The most magnetic performer onstage never says a word. Dressed sumptuously in traditional regalia, she moves from one pose to another, fingers curled back, one leg supporting the weight of her body, dark eyes speaking louder than many of the voices around her.

Her name is Sam-Oeun Tes, she's a traditional Cambodian dancer and she has a relatively small role in "Cambodia Agonistes," a revival of a 1992 musical theater piece by the Pan Asian Repertory Theater that opened at the West End Theater last night. But she is also the work's emotional heart.

"Cambodia Agonistes" has settled into the self-knowledge of middle age. Since its opening, it has played around the United States as well as at theater festivals in Egypt and South Africa, and it's had a chance to polish away some of the rawness of the new. Lydia Gaston has been playing the leading role (called "The Dancer") since 1995; she brings to it so much calm maturity that it's easy to anticipate that her character, torn from her child and tortured by the Khmer Rouge before being cast adrift as an immigrant in America, will ultimately find a kind of healing in resignation.

The piece, by Ernest Abuba, aspires to meld tragedy with political farce, most successfully in its caricature of a willful, childish dictator (Ron Nakahara) frustrated at the Dancer's inner resistance. The Dancer, working in a sweatshop, is continually carried back in memory to the horrors of her past, told in dreamlike sequences. Some of the biting lyrics are lost in performance; and the music of Louis Stewart, often strays into musical comedy territory that sounds oddly inappropriate for a tale of torture and grief (though he finds a nice Asian note of parody for the Khmer's victory parades).

Yet for all of the story's harrowing elements, Ms. Tes, in the two traditional dance sequences, is just a little more vivid than anything in the play. Like the play's main character, she has established a career as a Cambodian dancer in the United States, and she appears here like a
parenthesis within which the real story is hidden.

"Cambodia Agonistes" runs Wednesday through Saturday at 7:30, with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 3, through Nov. 20 at the West End Theater, 263 West 86th Street, Manhattan, (212) 279-4200.


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