Extraordinary Chambers Theatre Review – This “Chambers” Opens the Door to Genocide and Inner Pain

Mara (Marin Hinkle) and Carter (Mather Zickel) meet their host Dr. Heng (Francois Chau)

(Westwood, CA) June 4, 2011 – Do emotional scars truly heal? Is it better to forget the traumas we experienced in the past in order to function, to live, in the present? And if so, to what extent, especially at the risk of experiencing those same kind of ordeals over again? And what are we willing to do to erase those horrible memories? To make a deal with a devil? To make a concession on your values for the sake of those you love? These are very topical questions that were addressed at the Geffen Playhouse’s World Premiere of EXTRAORDINARY CHAMBERS. Courtesy of the riveting eloquence of David Wiener’s text and the potent performances by its stars, CHAMBERS explores the agonies of loss with realistically frightening results. 

Heng (Francois Chau) begs his wife Rom Chang (Kimiko Gelman) to escape

Telecommunications executive Carter (Mather Zickel) and his wife Mara (Marin Hinkle) travel to Phnom Penh, Cambodia in order to establish a deal that involves connecting the entire country to his company’s ever-evolving phone system. Carter is driven, passionate, almost obsessively optimistic about the transaction and especially the locale and its people, including their ever-pleasing guide Sopoan (Greg Watanabe); Mara is cynical, sarcastic, filled with bitterness and remorse, and doesn’t want to be there. It is later revealed that both are still recovering from the death of their young son and the emotional wounds are far from being healed. In the meantime, they meet their Cambodian liaison and administrator, Dr. Heng (Francois Chau), who, upon their first meeting, is filled with tense paranoia as he points a gun at the couple. When he discovers they are not members of the CIA, Heng transforms with disturbing speed into a suave, charismatic host. He serves them Bordeaux wine, delivers antidotes about Cambodian culture and the Nazi take-over of France, reminisces about his young, bohemian years in Paris, and offers poetic metaphors when it comes to visiting the famous ruins of Angor Wat while the sun rises, winning the vulnerable Mara over with each passing second. In the background, Heng’s younger wife Rom Chang (Kimiko Gelman) sneers with silent disgust at the American couple. During the times she does talk, Rom Chang’s derisive remarks towards Carter cut like a blade, while appearing seemingly empathetic towards Mara. When it is discovered that the United Nations tribunal is investigating and charging a number of suspected ex-Khmer Rouge officials---including Dr. Heng---for crimes against humanity, all players involved participate in a dangerous game of manipulation, denial, desperation, and outrage.  

Mara (Marin Hinkle) and Carter (Mather Zickel) confront each other's pain

David Wiener’s insightful script provides an effective blueprint for Director Pam MacKinnnon’s tight pacing and especially set designer Myung Hee Cho, whose exotic set smoothly transforms back and forth from the couple’s modern hotel room to Dr. Heng's post-colonial villa which combines both Cambodian and French influences. But it is the layered, multi-dimensional portrayals by the actors that drive the show to a pulsating climax. At first, Zickel’s Carter is an annoying, but well-intentioned yuppie whose overcompensating politeness almost becomes stereotypical. However, the power of Zickel’s performance is slowly peeled away, revealing his inner grief and brimming anger towards Mara’s blind determination and especially Dr. Heng’s machinations. It’s a subtle progression that ultimately explodes with raw energy. Hinkle’s sardonic behavior in the beginning of the play provides much-needed comic relief to Zickel’s fawning. However, Hinkle interweaves Mara’s cynicism with her heart-breaking despondency, driving her to do whatever it takes to fill the void that was created by the loss of her child. Meanwhile, Francois Chau’s Heng oozes charm and sophistication as the couple’s host. But like his American counterparts, Chau reveals his own anguish and fear with patient subtlety, providing depth and insight regarding his actions during Pol Pot’s regime. This layering is necessary in order to prevent from villain stereotyping and Chau’s craft as an actor excels is this character exploration. As Heng’s enigmatic wife, Gelman’s soft-spoken presence is chilling and malevolent. But she too carefully exposes her emotional scars regarding her people’s genocide, adding understanding and sympathy for this wounded soul. And rounding out this superb cast is the commanding portrayal of Wantanabe’s emotionally and physically damaged Sopoan. During the scenes with his co-stars, Watanabe is passive, subservient, and borderline obsequious. However, in between those vignettes, Watanabe gives riveting monologues describing what he had endured during the holocaust of his people. Although he initially appears to be monotone, a careful observer can witness the controlled, tightly-wound pain he exudes when describing the tortures he and his people experience. This is also interlaced with a combination of noble strength and dignity, especially his final scene with Gelman, providing the final piece to this tragic jigsaw puzzle called Extraordinary Chambers, a profound mosaic of loss, scars, and memory.         

Sopoan (Greg Watanabe) shares the horrors he has experienced

Extraordinary Chambers opened June 1 and runs to July 3, 2011.

Geffen Playhouse
Audrey Skirball Kenis Theatre
10886 Le Conte Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90024
(310) 208-6500 or www.geffenplayhouse.co

Photos by Michael Lamont

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