Sunday, December 06, 2009

On-Stage: Sweet Karma

Academy Award-winning actor and physician Dr. Haing S. Ngor’s 1996 murder in apparent hold-up attempt seemed like a case of fate gone cosmically out-of-synch. To survive the real life “Killing Fields” of the Cambodia Marxist Khmer Rouge regime Dr. Ngor had to endure the unthinkable. The question of how such desperate decisions made in nightmarish landscapes affects one’s karma (particularly in the Theravada Buddhist tradition which had long-dominated Cambodia) drives Henry Ong’s insightful play Sweet Karma, now running at the Studio Theatre in Queens Theatre in the Park.

Dr. Vichear Lam is not Dr. Ngor, but he certainly bears a close resemblance in a Law & Order kind of way. Indeed, both doctors were forced to conceal their medical training just to stay alive as the Khmer Rouge’s cruel ideology ran amok. Dr. Lam similarly lost his wife Arun under especially soul-trying circumstances while they were interned in one of Pol Pot’s reeducation-work camps. In turn, Lam also came to America as a refugee, eventually finding unlikely Hollywood glory in a film much like Roland Joffe’s The Killing Fields. In a final tragic parallel, it appears Lam is also about to be killed in a senseless act of street violence as Karma opens.

When a woman appears before him, Lam assumes she is one of the devas, Buddhist demigods who help the dying coming to terms with their past in order to harmonize their karma. However, “No Name” seems oddly emotionally invested in Lam’s story for an ostensibly dispassionate spirit guide. Like Scrooge with the Ghost of Christmas Past, No Name takes the doctor on a revealing tour of his past, visiting some scenes of triumph but focusing on painful incidents from his life with Arun.

In the demanding role of Lam, JoJo Gonzalez conveys a remarkable combination of survivor’s everything: guilt, pain, remorse, fear, and sorrow. He is effectively complimented by Bonna Tek, who gives a touching performance as Arun, maintaining a sense of credible humanity in what could have easily been a tragically noble stock character. Tina Chilip also hits some intriguing notes as No Name, nicely handling the play’s dramatic revelations, while Constance Parng (a NY Innovative Theater award winner for her supporting turn in Lee/gendary) and Brian Hirono prove quite flexible, vividly animating the many other characters Lam encounters in his eventful life.

Marcy Arlin’s fluid direction smoothly leads the audience through the many narrative jumps and effectively evokes the oppressiveness of Khmer Rouge Cambodia. While Lam’s story is obviously inspired by Ngor’s life, Ong still manages to spring a few big-picture surprises as the play unfolds. Despite the constant flashbacks, his script is quite tight and compelling. It is a thoughtful meditation on life, death, and the karma connecting them both that ought to appeal to fans of Richard Matheson’s What Dreams May Come (the book, not the messy film adaptation.)

Karma really gives a sense of what it is like emotionally to experience the horrors Lam (as a stand-in for Ngor) endured. It also offers some fascinating speculation about the Karmic repercussions of such “survival.” Thoughtfully conceived and well mounted by the Immigrants’ Theatre Project, Karma is a very satisfying production. Highly recommended, it is now officially open, running through December 20th at Queens Theatre in the Park.

(Photos: 2009 Amy Davis)