When a hotel desk clerk on the graveyard shift uses the quiet time to learn the language of his ancestors, he embarks on a journey that takes him from New York to Phnom Penh and then Dallas. The result is the dreamlike “Knyum,” a one-man play by Vichet Chum having its world premiere at Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell Jan. 10-Feb. 4.
Chum, whose parents arrived in the United States from Cambodia after escaping the murderous regime of Pol Pot, grew up in Texas, steeped in the conflicting ideas of identity familiar to the children of immigrants from many different cultures. “Knyum,” the title of the play, means “I” in Khmer.
“A lot of the story is based on my own experiences,” says Chum before a recent rehearsal. “I began writing when I worked the night shift at a hotel in New York when, in the middle of the night, you have that feeling of being awake but dreaming.”
Director KJ Sanchez, who is based in Austin, Texas, says MRT artistic director Sean Daniels approached her because of her experience directing new work, particularly her own memoir, “Highway 47,” about the town in New Mexico where she grew up and a feud that nearly destroyed the community.
“The dream elements are the beating heart of this play,” says Sanchez. “But writing exists without gravity. My job is to help visualize Vichet’s words and transpose the notes from a two- to a three-dimensional experience.”
In the play, the character named Guy attempts to reconnect with his heritage by learning Khmer. As he struggles to find a connection to this foreign language, he remembers moments from his childhood, his fascination with novelist Amy Tan, the stories his parents told him, as well as the ones they did not, and begins to piece together a richer understanding of family and his place in it.
“I’m not a writer that can visualize what the story will look like on a stage,” says Chum. “KJ dazzled me with her ideas for staging.”
Projections are an important piece of the production, says Sanchez. Designer Jon Haas has created a series of symbolic and literal images that provide an element of movement and story.
“Vichet uses this lyrical, poetic language,” Sanchez says, “that links us from the hotel to Cambodia, from Vichet’s childhood conversations with his father to his mother’s memories of life on the run trying to survive. There’s a wonderful image of a feather that connects the character Guy’s memories and imagination and the places they take us.”
Sanchez’s own theater company, American Records, focuses primarily on investigative and documentary theater, so she says the combination of facts and Chum’s quirky, funny voice make “Knyum” so accessible.
The world premiere production represents a fulfillment of Daniels’s commitment to work that speaks to the people of Lowell, which is home to one of the largest Cambodian communities in the nation.
“When Sean contacted me, it was Election Day 2016, and I was visiting Cambodia for the first time, sitting on a beach with family members I’d never met before,” says Chum. “I am the son of immigrants, refugees who came to the US and built a new life. Now is the time for me to be visible.”
A ‘League’ of its own
The theater troupe Imaginary Beasts returns with its annual Winter Panto, a souped-up version of the traditional English theatrical form, at the Charlestown Working Theater Jan. 13-Feb. 4. This year, the company sifts Jules Verne’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” through its comic, family-friendly strainer, with steam engines, sea monsters, Captain Nemo, and a talking cat all a part of this reimagining of the famous underwater adventure. Imaginary Beasts devises the script, working within the framework of the Panto, with its familiar stock characters, who often require encouragement (or jeers) from the audience to keep the action going. Under the artistic direction of Matthew Woods, the Beasts’ annual Winter Panto is a family favorite, and each year includes an unforgettable performance or comic line. Tickets $10-$24, 866-811-4111, www.imaginarybeasts.org.
Presented by Merrimack Repertory Theatre, 50 E. Merrimack St., Lowell, Jan. 10-Feb. 4. Tickets $15-$63, 978-452-0954, www.mrt.orgTerry Byrne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.