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Stage Review

A nightmarish period of Cambodian history evoked in ArtsEmerson’s wrenching ‘See You Yesterday’

A scene from “See You Yesterday.’’
A scene from “See You Yesterday.’’(Jacqueline Lessac)

From “Oedipus Rex’’ to “Hamlet’’ to “Death of a Salesman’’ to contemporary plays like David Lindsay-Abaire’s Pulitzer-winning “Rabbit Hole,’’ the stage has functioned as a crucible for the dramatization of intensely individual tragedies.

What “See You Yesterday’’ is attempting, however, is the tricky task of giving theatrical form to a monumental mass tragedy: the Cambodian genocide perpetrated in the 1970s by the Khmer Rouge regime that caused the deaths of nearly 2 million people, a fifth of the nation’s population.

The ultimate truth and meaning of a crime that monstrous and cataclysmic is obviously beyond the capacity of any one stage production to fully capture. Thirty years ago Elie Wiesel wrote a blistering essay on the cultural trivialization of the Holocaust, decrying its treatment as “a fashionable subject’’ for “cheap and simplistic melodramas’’ on film and TV. “The truth of Auschwitz remains hidden in its ashes,’’ wrote Wiesel. “Only those who lived it in their flesh and in their minds can possibly transform their experience into knowledge. Others, despite their best intentions, can never do so.’’

Within those acknowledged constraints, and mindful of the distance between art and life, “See You Yesterday’’ is a devastatingly powerful work of remembrance, of empathy, and of tribute to a nation’s resilience. Crucially, there’s not a single whiff of exploitation in this Global Arts Corps production, a brilliantly performed hybrid of physical theater and circus arts that is receiving its US premiere, presented by ArtsEmerson, only through Sunday at the Emerson Paramount Center.

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Directed by Michael Lessac, “See You Yesterday’’ was co-created by the show’s 19 young Cambodian performers and a team from Global Arts Corps, which aims to use theater as a force for reconciliation in nations traumatized by war and conflict. All of the cast members have parents or grandparents who experienced the Khmer Rouge years, and they interviewed their elders before creating “See You Yesterday,’’ according to ArtsEmerson.

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That personal connection is palpable and signaled at the very start of the show, when the cast sits cross-legged on the stage, hands clasped prayerfully. At the end, the sense of one generation paying homage to another is communicated even more unmistakably, in a deeply moving tableau.

Yet the first few minutes of “See You Yesterday’’ give scant hint of the soul-searing experience to come. A male performer jokes with the audience while doing a balancing act on a ladder; another zips across the stage on a unicycle; several female contortionists twist themselves into impossible combinations; acrobats spring explosively through somersaults downstage while jugglers flip balls and clubs upstage. The garb is casual (gray T-shirts, gray sweatpants) among the barefoot performers and the atmosphere is carefree: everyday life, going on.

Then, suddenly, two performers leap onto the shoulders of two others and begin shouting angrily at the rest, establishing an authority that quickly turns into a reign of terror.

Bodies are strewn across the stage while a performer in a monkey mask capers about (whether in solicitude or hostility, it’s hard to tell), which is followed in rapid succession by scenes of subjugation, brutalization, and uncertainty. Cambodian citizens huddle fearfully in a group, awaiting their fate. They bend over in forced labor, enduring the grinding toil of crop-picking. In an especially harrowing sequence, a man is forced into a pool of light and savagely beaten and kicked by a Khmer Rouge soldier. The soldier then plucks a villager from the crowd and forces him to beat the man.

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Yet the configurations, tempos, and moods do not remain static in “See You Yesterday’’; even within the darkness, there are expressive sequences that implicitly make the case for beauty. Indeed, on the level of sheer circus artistry, “See You Yesterday’’ frequently captivates, with performers executing such feats as balancing on one hand, somersaulting backward and landing on another’s shoulder, and constructing a human pyramid.

At one point amid the horror, a woman separates herself from the crowd and gives birth. The baby, represented by a bolt of red cloth, then occupies the center of a silent, step-by-step narrative in “See You Yesterday’’ that betokens not just escape but possibly liberation. Simple as it is, the steady progress of that bit of fabric rivets our attention with its promise that a grim yesterday will eventually give way to a hopeful tomorrow.

SEE YOU YESTERDAY

Directed by Michael Lessac

Choreographer, Chumvan Sodhachivy. Director of circus, Khuon Det.

A Global Arts Corps production presented by ArtsEmerson at Robert J. Orchard Stage, Emerson Paramount Center, Boston. Through May 19. Tickets $20-$85, 617-824-8400, artsemerson.org


Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter@GlobeAucoin