Negotiating Parts Unknown
Local productions of plays that explore worlds within and worlds without
By Richard Lord
Successful plays used to have audiences; now they have constituencies. These days, those desperately sought big audiences are more likely to turn out for a show because of what it does rather than how well it does it.
Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues is a good example of this phenomenon. Almost everywhere it plays, Monologues draws enviably well because of the various women’s issues it addresses. It has even helped give rise to a social movement, V-Day, which seeks to combat male violence against women. As of this past September, the show had raised over USD 13.5M for various women’s groups. Indeed. this local production (at the Arts House) was linked to the White Ribbon campaign, which proudly takes up this banner. Going to see the Monologues becomes a way of supporting this good cause; saying anything negative about the show could be taken as showing lack of support.
In short, Monologues benefits from a kind of emotional and moral extortion. (I was rather tempted to ask many of my fellow audience-members at the near full-house performance I attended how often they go to live theatre. I suspect the yearly average would not be very high.)
Fortunately, The Vagina Monologues also packs a spate of good writing and sharp if not profound or insights, so its popularity and packed houses can be rated as something of a victory for the cause of theatre art.
The Vagina Monologues is based on interviews with over 200 women carried out by Ensler and her assistants. This stage version of the Monologues was put together from what was (we assume) the most theatrically promising of these interviews. (There is a book version which contains significantly more material.) Ensler and team further culled the best of the promising and finally put together this show which runs close to an hour-and-a-half without interval (wisely, as a break would drain it of some of its impact).
Let me first off deliver myself of my reservations about the Monologues. The work is not really a play as such, but a series of monologues stitched together into an evening’s strip of entertainment, education and emotional transport.
It is the stitching that causes me to scrunch my critical brow a bit. There lingers a sense that most of the scenes were arranged at something close to random. Yes, there is a nod to the need for pacing (longer pieces delivered by individual voices are sandwiched between quick catalogues of statistics or short responses - pet names for the vagina, what would the organ say if it could speak [some sample phrases: "Feed me!", "Let's play,", "Remember me?"], what would it wear - with all three actresses delivering these responses in rapid-fire fashion). This mix of monologues, anatomy-lesson soundbites and brief flights of the imagination keep the show from falling into monotony, but any pacing is more strategic than organic.
More to the point of my dart, there is little sense of flow or build-up between the speeches. Rather, one gets the feeling that, other than the first and last monologues, the pieces could have been randomly reshuffled and the show would flow just as well - or just as arbitrarily - as it does now. The only structuring device to the current Monologues seems to be that the testimonies more of less begin and end with the two most senior women presented. The last piece, wherein a grandmother witnesses the birth of her grandchild and sees the vagina as a thing of awe and wonder is a most fitting end to the show, and the opening monologue (from a repressed 72-year-old who has never had an orgasm) is probably as good a place as any to kick off from. But no one would ever claim that in this show, the whole is better than the sum of its parts.
To be fair, this structural flaw was perhaps unavoidable in a piece composed of diverse monologues around an extremely broad central theme. And it never really distracts from what the playwright does well here.
What Ensler does well is to draw out insightful comments, confessions and regrets from its anonymous speakers. And what she does equally well is to find the right mix of humour and seriousness to keep an audience engaged in roughly 75 minutes of single-voice speeches. Often that mix comes within the same monologue. The first senior admits that she has not been “down there” since 1953, then quickly adds that this was not Eisenhower’s fault. (Which must be reassuring for conservatives all across America.) The 72-year old further bewails the fact that vagina odours “get in your clothes”. A certain pathos then slips in as she recounts her life of unfulfilment, culminating in the revelation that she has now been diagnosed with uterine cancer.
Still, there are some monologues that are clearly intended for comic effect and others that are dead serious. (Paramount amongst the latter are the stories of multiple rape during the Bosnian war, or the sexual abuse of a young girl by family friends and other trusted adults.) Some of the speeches, long and short, go for some, ahem, low-down fun, and these were, predictably, real crowd-pleasers.
One intensely moving monologue looks at the barbarism of female circumcision. The piece builds up slowly, gaining power as it moves along to its conclusion. The language is so powerful in its simplicity and sorrow that it works like a mini-earthquake. And there is one utterly gripping line there where the young girl forced to have the clitorectomy perceives a “bad, dead animal with a slit throat” down there following the ritual.
However, it might be pointed out that these darker monologues, far from being challenging, are more like preaching ‘thou-art-good-and-enlightened’ sermons to the choir. Seriously, how many people who go to the theatre support gang-rapes in Bosnia, genital mutilation, or sexual abuse of children? If you asked for a show of hands, I am sure not one hand would have gone up in the more than 10 performances here. Ensler, who continues to update the material in the show, could surely have come up with accounts that would make audience members, male and female, much more uncomfortable. The really disturbing monologues never led us to look into ourselves and ask how we, too, are in some way - any way - guilty of these things.
There are also dodgy bits that pop up here and there. For instance, the ‘woman who liked to make vaginas happy’ ebulliently tells us “I love vaginas. I love women. I don’t see them as separate things.” Talk about your radical reductionism! Look, if a man said that, he would probably get spat upon - and rightly so. Are we to give a nod of approval to this sentiment because it is expressed here by a lesbian who happens to be a professional pleasure-provider? Sounds like the old Double Standard to me.
(I have to concede that the rest of this monologue was perhaps the funniest part of the evening and drew the loudest and the biggest applause from the audience.)
When the Monologues first hit the boards in New York, in 1996, it was a one-woman show, performed by Ensler herself. Since the work started a triumphant tour around the world in 1999, most productions have discovered that the format is best served by three females of varying ages. (Although the individual pieces are not assigned in any fixed way to one particular performer or another.) The tripartite division was the one chosen by the New Voice Company performed at the Singapore Arts House. The three actresses involved in this version are clearly of differing ages, though the age span is not all that great. (It would have been possible to find an older actress here. The casting obviously took other factors into consideration.)
Nora Samosir was the senior member of this trio. While Samosir is the eldest of the three performers here, she is still rather short of 72, the age of the lady in that first monologue. (The one who exonerates Eisenhower.) And she was unable to fully capture all the poignancy of this older woman whose sexual reminiscences are filled more with regrets and missed chances than juicy secrets. Further, Samosir did not get everything she could out of the uterine cancer revelation.
Samosir was clearly more successful with her other characters. Playing the much more sexually relaxed woman who finds a guy who knows how to treat, indeed adore, her pussy, she came into her own. However, the actress hesitated as she recounted “The first time we…had sex.” This is hardly the right cadence for such a liberated lady right in the middle of a long litany of intimate sexual details. However, Samosir picked up from that point and delivered this woman’s testimony with assurance, humour and grace.
Samosir was at her best in the “Angry Vagina” speech, where she moved up and down the scales of emotions like a virtuoso musician handling tricky riffs. She was especially good at the humorous attacks on the indignities of some medical inspections. She beautifully let blast at the typical gynaecologist’s examination, where the tools of the trade include paper dress, “Nazi stirrups” and duck clips.
Curiously, the most consistent performances of the evening came from the performer with the shortest acting C.V. - Anita Kapoor. Host of the Discovery Channel’s “Secret Singapore” series, Kapoor could only claim two bits of dramatic acting before this show: a small part in the ad hoc anti-Iraq-War Lysistrata performed here two years ago and a featured role in one episode of the late Channel I’s Life series. It was probably her work as a travel-show host that allows Kapoor such strength in enunciation, pacing of speech and delivery. All of which were, of course, important to these monologues.
Her big spotlight moment here featured a woman who went from being a lawyer to being a same-sex worker. As Kapoor said in beautiful dead-pan, “There was nothing like this in tax law.”
The climax - sorry, the uhh…peak? - of this monologue came when the sex worker took us through the rich chorus of moans her clients summon up. Kapoor moved cautiously at first, building up to the actual moans, saving the best for later. Her ‘doggy moan’ was a near-classic and included the reflex of the thumping foot and the grateful panting.
This section was wonderfully funny, but it also showed how deeply American this successful export is. I wonder how many here caught the cultural references behind the WASP moan, the Jewish-American moan. Personally, I missed the moan from my own cultural background - the Irish Catholic moan (“Jesus, Mary and Jo-o-o-seph! This must be where the gates of Heaven are!’)
Which raises a good point. Why did this production not incorporate some Singaporean or Southeast Asian versions? It has become standard practice in non-US productions of the Monologues to replace the original catalogue with localised varieties of ecstatic moans. It certainly would have made this section even more enjoyable for the Lion City audience.
Cynthia McQuarrie Lee’s work here was more mixed. In the rapid-fire sections with the short responses and statistics, she was not as strong as the other two, by and large reciting her bits as if they were lines learned rather than felt.
But after warming up, Lee proved herself exceptional in the two most harrowing monologues of the evening, the accounts of genital mutilation and the Bosnian War gang-rapes. In these turns, Lee showed true mastery of the narrative, with flawless pacing, superb voice control, and a remarkable feel for the mooring and release of emotions incumbent to the experiences. In short, she was simply riveting in these speeches, bringing forth chills if not tears in the audience as she seemed to be re-living these horrors herself.
Curiously, Lee was also assigned the role of the grandmother in the final monologue. Even younger than Samosir, Lee was unable to capture the sense of all those years leading to the insights and emotional pool this woman draws from. Still, when handling the actual birth of her granddaughter and the wonder of new life, Lee again hit the magic lever as she delivered a touching closing note to the show.
The fact that the three actresses brought their scripts out with them, occasionally calling on the written text, was mildly distracting at first, but soon became little more than an accoutrement of this production. Besides, by the time I caught the show, towards the end of its ten-day run, the actresses were using these scripts more as safety nets than as key reference material.
Director Jonas Abueva obviously concentrated much more on the texts and the delivery of such than on obvious theatrical elements. The less kind might say that this was a fairly static staging of the Monologues.
The three actresses were pretty much nailed to one long red couch throughout the evening. When one actress delivered her set piece, the other two often froze, pretending not to be there, at times looking like they wished they could will themselves into invisibility. Though all too obviously, they were there, within inches of the speaker.
At other times, the silent two focused their gaze on the speaker and appeared to be listening intently to the recitation. This certainly worked better than freezing, but only mildly so. The two other productions of Vagina Monologues I have seen were much more inventive in the use of space and movement. Abueva and the New Voice Company were just lucky they had three fine actresses with strong vocal gifts to transport us away from the stagnant tableaux with which we were presented.
Another local production back in November, Furthest North, Deepest South, also took a look at genital mutilation and its repercussions. The latest production by The Finger Players, North/South is a reflection on the life and accomplishments of Cheng Ho, the famous ‘eunuch admiral’ who in the early 1400’s led a massive Chinese fleet to many parts of the world, perhaps even as far as Australia and the Americas. (The jury is still out on some of those claims, with at least as many sceptics as believers.)
But playwright Chong Tze Chien is not really interested in pinning down historical truths and writing a scrupulously accurate chronicle of events. Look, he has Cheng Ho crossing paths with a trio of 20th century celebrities and walking in on a series of Miss Universe pageants when he pulls into Brazil, North America and Australia.
What Chong is pursuing are other quite interesting goals. For the focus of his concerns here, matters not a whit whether Cheng Ho actually made it to America. Chong could have had the Admiral exploring the dark side of the moon and the trip would have fit into his fanciful post-Modern narrative. (And to be fair, Chong does not stray that much further from accepted historical accounts than Shakespeare did in most of his history plays.)
The play opens in a timeless limbo the author calls ‘a café at the last place on earth’. Here, Cheng Ho and his loyal crew member meet up with Virginia Woolf, Imelda Marcos and an astronaut. When the crew member asks why they are sentenced to be there, Woolf replies that “each of us has gone too far - physically, emotionally, morally”. Chong then swings back to late 14th-early 15th century China and treats us to an entertaining examination of what going too far can entail and the consequences thereof.
We soon see that the author’s greater concerns here are with probing issues such as the need to control; the need to prove oneself when one is seen as not being fully legitimate; the jealousy inevitably tied up with power and prestige; the impulse to leave one’s home and the drive to discover new worlds; even the meaning of ‘home’ when one is physically divorced from that home.
Most of these issues are explored through the eyes of Cheng Ho and Zhu Di, the emperor who sent him off on most of his seven voyages. Both of these men were evidently fascinating figures: Cheng Ho was not Chinese, but a member of a minority ethnic group and a Muslim. He was also a native of Yunnan, which was the Chinese province where allegiance to the Mongols proved hardest to eradicate. And, to cut it all short, he was a eunuch, which meant most folks in imperial China would view him as less than a man. This classic Outsider was therefore driven to prove that he was, in fact, more of a man than the average Chinese subject of his time.
Zhu Di, not the eldest son, had seized the throne from his older brother (in this play, though most sources say it was a nephew); this with the help of Cheng Ho, who had fought bravely on his behalf. The newly seated emperor proceeded to establish Beijing as his new royal capital and to rebuild the Great Wall, more or less to the state in which we find it today. With these changes underway, the highly ambitious emperor next pressed ahead with that series of long-planned sea voyages.
Intriguingly, as drawn by playwright Chong, the royal usurper now perched on the throne of the most powerful empire of his time remains more insecure than the eunuch who had risen from a very humble background to become admiral of a enormous fleet. In this version, Cheng Ho wants to run an egalitarian ship without ranks and he refuses to subjugate peoples he encounters. (At this same period, European navies beginning to explore Africa were already seizing the natives and forcing them into slavery.)
Meanwhile, Zhu Di, goaded by the court Mandarins who tell him he has to ‘earn the respect due an emperor, not steal it’ laments, “Is my world so small?” (At this point, the Chinese fleet has only been to India.) His ambitions are much larger: he wants “the entire world to become the map of China” He also yearns to “let heaven and hell know that I am a new emperor in a new age in a new world”. How is that for thinking big?
Paranoia is an almost requisite tonic for a man with such ambitions, and this Zhu Di drinks deeply from it. Later, that same Mandarin chorus reminds us that “He keeps his friends close and his enemies even closer.” Of course, one friend, perhaps his oldest, he sends far away, to ‘the ends of the earth’ . When handed this assignment, our Cheng Ho plaintively asks, “Why are you doing this? I’m your friend.” Zhu Di answers imperiously: “Cheng Ho, I’m your emperor.”
These compulsions, to expand the empire by bringing the whole world under one’s sceptre and to go further with each new exploration, carry the seeds of future destruction. As China did not colonise and economically exploit those colonies the way the European powers later did, the treasury was soon running on empty. Before too long, Zhu Di had been overthrown, hanged and disgraced. Cheng Ho himself returns to a country in which he finds himself a stranger: no longer welcome and no longer with a sense of being home.
History tells us that this period of breathtaking exploration directly ushered in the period of Great Withdrawal for China. Apart from the draining of the treasury, the jealousy of the Mandarins towards the eunuchs and others who had usurped their high status played a major role in China looking back in upon itself; tragically, as history has shown. Chong Tze Chien nicely works in this battle of personalities and prestige in a lively, often comic manner.
More, Chong tells his tale with solid writing, perked up here and there with strong lines. He does this in a light post-Modernist mode, jauntily mixing history, pop culture and pop psychology. He even throws in some requisite feminism: our Miss Brazil bites people because she had to submit herself to a ruthless diet in order to squeeze into her bikini. You are right; the humour there is somewhat sophomoric.
Chong does occasionally lame the text with such groaners, some even worse. To (non-)wit: In the opening scene, Mrs. Marcos tells her fellow residents of Café Limbo that “It’s like Hotel California: you can check out anytime, but you can never leave.” Sorry, but with that character and that context, you just cannot make that line soar like an Eagle.
I agree with at least one other critic that the text could have been trimmed of some of its post-Modernist fat and that the very last scene not only seems anti-climatic but detracts from the power of the scene just before it. But Chong Tze Chien has taken on a challenging task with this work and brought it off admirably in this first edition. It is a work that deserves to be slightly re-worked and re-staged. Its potential is equal to its achievement.
The production of this first edition of the play had everything the New Voice Vagina Monologues lacked: it was highly kinetic, resolutely theatrical, and full of energy and inventiveness. More importantly, all these elements served the playwright’s text rather than pulling at and deconstructing it, as is the wont of too many directors armed with a theory and an agenda.
If Chong Tze Chien served up an interesting script here, the bigger applause for this staging belongs to director Christina Sergeant and the puppet masters of Finger Players, who brought his vision to life in a most engaging way. It should be noted though that the playwright specifically called for the use of puppets in many of these scenes. (The enterprise was, by the way, a co-production of the Finger Players and Mime Unlimited, of which Sergeant is Artistic Director.)
The set (designed by Chong Tze Chien himself) had a makeshift feel about it. At first, I jotted this down as a negative, taking it as a bit of making-do forced on a production burdened with a low budget. But as the evening progressed, I started to see it as more the shrewd choice of a company using its limited resources to their best advantage.
That makeshift feel was an ideal arena for the company to work out its imaginative work on Chong’s grand vision. From the directorial to the acting to the puppeteering to the tech work, this was good, high-octane theatre. That rudimentary set was just ground zero for so many nice bits that were about to come.
The puppets include an astronaut and a talking book (this latter stands for Virginia Woolf). The puppet representing the grandly indulgent Imelda Marcos is one large shoe. The comic look of the puppets assured that these visual jokes would all work as intended.
But the puppets were not simply used for comic effects. For instance, when Cheng Ho and crew made their triumphal return from Africa, the Admiral riding in on a huge giraffe puppet, Gene on an elephant puppet. (The actors worked these constructions themselves.) Meanwhile, a mix of puppets and the three actors working them served as a kind of Mandarin tragic chorus. In this way, we get the mandarins’ questionable version of this history as well as some insider dirt on the imperial court.
At one point, Cheng Ho and Zhu Di were also presented as life-sized puppets, with the strings mounted on the two actors in the roles. This flash of inspiration would have worked better if the two performers’ movements had been more puppet-like.
Beyond that, this show was certainly loaded with good theatrical devices: Red streamers run from the head of the crown prince puppet after his beheading. Two cast members dressed in black serve as a furnace, with similar red streamers flowing out as the flames. (What they were burning mainly were books; a foretaste of the book-burnings many despotic regimes throughout history have relied on to ‘protect innocent minds’.)
The 11-member cast of North/South also poured a good deal of energy into making the project successful. Much of the acting was ensemble work, with performers taking on multiple roles and handling them nicely. Those who concentrated on one role included Fanny Kee as Cheng Ho, Subramaniam as Zhu Di, Gene Sha Rudyn as most of the 30,000-man crew, and Koh Leng Leng as the emperor’s Number One concubine.
Fanny Kee was certainly not cast because she had the right look. The admiral is described in Chinese historical records as ‘quite tall and heavy’, with ‘clear-cut features and long ear lobes’ as well as ‘a stride like a tiger's’. Sure, Kee looked just right as the 10-year-old, freshly castrated, but that appearance was only in one short scene at the beginning.
And sad to say, Kee - who has often proven her acting abilities - just did not have the chops to bring the Eunuch Admiral fully to life. She was too tentative, too conflicted throughout. To be sure, both of these qualitative belonged to the role, but Kee failed to deliver the more…well, manly aspects of the character. She was in general too low-keyed and introspective to be credible as a bold admiral who had driven a huge fleet around the world.
Having said that, one has to concede that Kee had some good moments. In the scene where Cheng Ho is first appointed head of the fleet, Kee put the admiral’s hat on slowly, deliberately, showing the gravity of the moment and his awareness of the heavy responsibility now in his hands. Even more, the looks on the Admiral’s face when returning home for the last time and when deciding to head out again were spot-on. But for a definitive performance, Kee needed many more moments like this as well as more grittiness where grittiness was required.
Subramaniam again took on the power-role of a complex despot. (He is now almost in danger of being typecast this way, based on his star turn as Atahuallpa in last year’s Royal Hunt of the Sun and his fine-tuned performance here.)
Subramaniam’s Zhu Di was by turns sympathetic and repulsive. The actor caught the arrogance and hubris of the man as well as the insecurities that propel him. This Zhu Di came off as one of the major victims of his own ambition and pride.
Perhaps his best moments came in the later scenes with his concubine. Here, Zhu Di was trying to scrape the bottom of his heart for all the tenderness he could find there, but was too busy observing himself in the role of emperor to do and say what he needed to say. The same vivid sense of conflict came out in some of the tyrant’s more personal dealings with Cheng Ho.
Gene Sha Rudyn put together a winning performance as ‘the Crew’. Gene ably showed every soft and sharp facet of the character, making him funny, warm, slightly devious but ultimately the man you would trust with your life with.
Koh Leng Leng was also thoroughly laudable as the concubine, though in a quiet way. Particularly in the scenes after Zhu Di has had her tongue cut out, Koh achieved a poignancy that touched us deeply. The looks she gave her lover-torturer emperor when he tried to communicate with her after the tongue removal were alternately heart-wrenching and chilling.
The tech work for this production was also deserving of praise, though not unbounded praise. For instance, the opening sounds were cacophonous, with a mix of Chinese music and sea sounds. The intentions of this soundscape were clear, but they could have been carried out much better.
And although the last scene did not quite work (as I said above), if it was going to be done, the half moon over the pyramid should have stayed on longer to create that ideal closing effect.
But for all its flaws, this edition of Furthest North, Deepest South was an inspired evening of theatre, perhaps even a model for local productions with limited budgets. From script to direction to performances to tech and special effects, it showed what the right combination of local talents can achieve when brought together creatively.QLRS Vol. 4 No. 2 Jan 2005