nytheatre.com review by Mitchell Conway
December 5, 2009
Immigrants' Theatre Project brings a worthwhile production to Queens Theatre in the Park of the new play Sweet Karma by Henry Ong. Guided by a deva figure through his past, from oppression in Cambodia to Hollywood fame, Vichear Lam confronts his life's challenges, victories, and mistakes. Jojo Gonzalez gives an original, unsparing, honest performance at the center of a play that asks whether our attachment to life makes us disregard those others close to us.
South Asian pop, and dimly lit scattered items amidst bamboo and fog, create the feeling of a rich cultural landscape, somehow underground (for me evoking the tunnels created by the Vietnamese during their civil war, if it is permissible to mix cultural references), or in a realm beyond that we know. (Sound design by Elizabeth Rhodes, lighting by Christopher Weston, and set design by Robert Monaco converge successfully here, as they do throughout the show.) Cambodia is often a side note in the minds of many Americans to the Vietnam War, but it is an ancient civilization with monuments rivaling the Egyptian pyramids, a rich religious culture, and a recent history of political upheaval and genocide. This production brings that sense of ancient wisdom still not fully manifested in the political reality.
The actors enter the playing space and never leave. They move in and out of the foreground, maintaining the sensation of a dreamscape. Vichear Lam (clearly inspired by the real-life figure Haing S. Ngor) experienced the brutality of the Khmer Rouge as they took power in Cambodia, then went on to become an Oscar-winning actor in the film The Killing Fields, where he portrayed many events similar to those he actually endured.
Moments dealing with violence are quite effectively executed. Director Marcy Arlin has a strong hold on communicating the disorientation and pain of such experiences in ways that get beyond realism and into the shattering, transcending "real." The narration of a woman's brutal rape and murder (of her and her unborn child) is accompanied by simply the face of the man relishing his cruelty and the woman bursting with agony. Constance Parng reaches startlingly deep as her face moves in slow motion through these horrible events. An extensive childbirth sequence is difficult to sit through, but nonetheless powerful; in large part due to the vocal and physical dedication of Bonna Tek as Arun.
But what stands out most in this production, along with these especially compelling moments, is Jojo Gonzalez's overall strength, spirit, and clarity as Vichear Lam. There is an undecorated tense realness to him as he aches for his wife Arun, holding a locket with her picture.
On the other hand, some of Ong's dialogue is troublesome, particularly in the romantic sequences between Vichear Lam and his wife-to-be. Arguably, these sequences, like the whole play, are Vichear Lam's recollection, and should therefore be exaggerated to realize how the experiences dwell in his memory. But to me the idealization of falling in love does not need to become cartoonish or a parody, but rather viscerally genuine, however silly. Finishing sentences simultaneously, followed by a pregnant pause, may actually occur between those discovering commonality accompanied by anxiety, but its representation here, along with the development of the couple's relationship, feels corny.
The play begins and ends with a dynamic movement sequence, and a number of Buddhist axioms about causes and conditions, detachment, and karma. These ideas are not further elucidated by the story, nor consistently confronted. Often after a difficult trial Vichear Lam declares, "it is my karma." Certainly Vichear Lam is forced to face the mistakes he made; in particular, two instances where he disregarded another life to save his own haunt him. The doctrine presented seems to indicate that the flaw resulting in these actions is his attachment to life. Were he to detach from the need to remain in the life cycle, he would have acted differently. But does not detachment also imply detachment from conscience just as much as abandoning the instinct for survival? The indictment of his want of survival, and his unfaithfulness to his wife, indicate more of a call for conscience, and consideration for others' suffering. Maybe these notions are inextricably linked; a Buddhist would have to correct me. But conscientiousness seems like a life-oriented force to me. Importantly, the play certainly prompts consideration of such questions, however unanswered.
Vichear Lam gave a brilliant performance on film, never having acted before, because he lived through the events of the film. Was he exploited? How does such a film about atrocities function? Are we further educated, or rather somehow purged of responsibility by feeling familiar with the conflict? I would hope that knowledge leads to truth, and to a further realization of a common sense of humanity. The Hollywood figures in this play are all represented as utterly hollow, even working on a film about an important tragedy. Does Hollywood merely exploit tragedy while remaining aloof? Yes, as far as I can tell. Does The Killing Fields prevent future killing fields?
Vichear Lam sees his karma as a tiny speck dancing on the moon in the form of his wife. This is incomprehensible, just like our fate.