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Cambodia's Tragic Past Haunts Today's Audience

As a tribute to Asian populations, Pan Asian Repertory Theatre unfolds a panorama of genocide and revenge

`CAMBODIAN Agonistes'' is a haunting story of one woman's journey as she tries to come to grips with horrific memories of the Cambodian genocide.

Told through music, poetry, and Cambodian ballet, the work is one of the most ambitious that the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre has produced in its 17-year history, says Tisa Chang, the organization's artistic director.

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The show, which premiered during the company's 1992 season, recently toured Philadelphia and Boston. The next performances are April 9 and 10 at the Lehman Center for the Performing Arts in New York. (The Pan Asian Repertory is based at Playhouse 46 in the city.)

THE play opens with a Cambodian dancer sewing in a Chinatown garment factory. Through flashbacks, she relives some of the terror she experienced during Pol Pot's brutal regime. The scene switches from present-day New York to a Khmer Rouge extermination camp where villagers sing their individual stories, and the dancer looks for the young son who was taken from her. In a surreal moment, soldiers play catch with a human eyeball. One swallows it and grows into a child who becomes a dictator.

The scene then switches to the 9th century - the beginning of the golden age in Cambodia's history. Two Cambodian dancers dressed in glittering splendor perform a bewitching dream-ballet that foretells the birth of a ``superbaby'' who will dominate the world (Pol Pot).

Back at the factory, the dancer realizes she is losing her sight. Though doctors can find no medical reason for the blindness, it is the result of her desire for revenge. The next scene in the camp shows the relationship between her and the dictator.

In New York, the dancer is reunited with her now-grown son, a fierce Khmer Rouge guerrilla fighter, in a scene that ends tragically, because she is unable to stifle her vengeance. She eventually learns that she will not attain the next level of Buddhist enlightenment until she stops hating.

``Cambodian Agonistes'' is filled with Buddhist symbolism and imagery. The set is simple but effective; it includes a couple of elevated platforms. Four slender white banners hang from the ceiling and serve as a screen for projected images ranging from the temple at Angkor Wat to a New York City street to Phnom Penh.

THE work, which took three years to develop, was written by Ernest Abuba with music by Louis Stewart. Says Chang: ``We wanted to rise to the challenge of trying to stage and theatricalize the unspeakable. It's our answer, as a tribute, as a response, to growing new Asian populations, particularly from Southeast Asia.''

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Pan Asian Repertory Theatre, which employs only Asian and Asian-American artists, has staged more than 60 productions since 1977. Plays focus on issues drawn from watershed events in modern Asian-American history generally not represented in Western plays, Chang says.

Today Asian-American theater is at a crossroads, she continues. ``Now a whole generation of newer artists, younger artists are flourishing. They are more business-oriented, more star struck ... they know, practically speaking, [that] Hollywood and Broadway are where they want to end up because the nonprofit theater arena will be good for their soul but not for their pocketbooks.''

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