The Magic of Polaroid

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theatre for KCRW.

Remember the magic of Polaroid cameras? Unlike the camera on your iPhone, there was that satisfying, mechanical ker-chunk as the photo spit itself out like a tongue. Then the real alchemy began: from a gray cloudy square, colors slowly emerged then perhaps a face or a body took shape in the frame. Rather than the immediate, sterile clarity of a digital photo, the Polaroid had the feel of looking into a crystal ball, as if to emphasize that capturing a frozen moment from the past really was a work of sorcery.

poster.jpgThese magical Polaroid photos play an important role in David Wiener's world-premiere play Extraordinary Chambers now playing at the Geffen Playhouse.

The pictures, themselves, are props representing both the present and the distant past. But more than physical objects, the Polaroid is a metaphor for the play itself.

The story revolves around an American tele-com executive who flies to Cambodia to try and tie up a business deal - his company's going to colonize a healthy chunk of Cambodia's information highway. He's brought his wife along for what seems like an innocent "working vacation," but something's not quite right. His deal brings him into the living room of one Dr. Heng, the kind of guy who helps you cut through the web of red tape. Need an information ministry contract? Dr. Heng's your guy...for a price of course. And it turns out, the good doctor has a plan of his own and things quickly get complicated.

We slowly learn that everyone in the play has a ghost lurking in their past. The magic of Extraordinary Chambers, like watching a polaroid photo come to life, is slowly discovering what secrets the past holds.

Since we're in Cambodia, that past includes the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge. The title Extraordinary Chambers comes from the courts that were built to try the despotic regime for war crimes.

What's wonderful about David Wiener's play is it's not just about the Khmer Rouge and the past. Too often you go the theater to see an "important play about a significant historical era" and you get a glorified history lecture. Characters teach you all the horrible things that the past. Here, David Wiiner has figured out how to activate this history. He's made the characters' past a motivation for their actions in the present and that's what's exciting for the audience. What unfolds over the course of two hours is a bit like a scavenger hunt for the truth. Slowly the images come into sharper focus and once they do we're confronted with five characters stuck in a moral dilemma: what would you do for the people you love? How far would you go to save, or create, a family?

Those are questions that resonate for all of us and David Wiener's play makes the past all too relevant. Don't let the weighty subject matter - or the play's off-putting marketing campaign - keep you away.

Extraordinary Chambers plays through July 3 at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood.

For info on the show text the word curtain to 69866 or join the conversation at

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theatre for KCRW.

Banner image: Marin Hinkle, Mather Zickel and Francois Chau in the world premiere of David Wiener's Extraordinary Chambers at the Geffen Playhouse. Photo: Michael Lamont