Reassembling Vital Parts
Two Singapore theatrical landmarks are revisited
First, a quick bit of Singapore Theatre history: Way, way back in the Dark Ages (1987, to be precise), Straits Times editor Russell Heng wrote an engaging play about a Bugis Street transvestite turned transsexual for TheatreWorks. The company was denied a license to put on the piece, Lest The Demons Get To Me, evidently because of its subject matter.
Three years later, the Singapore Arts Festival brought in an overseas production of M. Butterfly. Following this exposure to a multiple award-winning play about transvestites and sex, Singapore’s censorship board, PELU, had a change a change of heart and passed The Demons for public performance, allowing it a staged reading in late 1991 and a full production in early 1992. A few months later, popular playwright Michael Chiang saw his bittersweet comedy Private Parts, which focused on a triad of transsexuals, get staged as part of that year’s Arts Festival. As Chiang recalls, his work had no problems at all with censorship: PELU did not ask him to change or drop a single line.
That is how quickly some barriers can and do fall in a puritanical society such as this one. And since 1992, a number of other barriers have fallen, and major changes have taken place in the Lion City that would have been unimaginable just 15 years ago. For that reason (as well as the strong marketability of the piece), Chiang decided to update his Private Parts, bringing it into the bright lights of 2004. Not unfittingly, this updated edition was staged at the Esplanade, Singapore’s sparkling new arts centre and scene of many of its own controversies. Though these were more financial and cultural than over subject matter.
(Just for the record, in 1994, a genital-hair snipping incident by a performance artist, some vigorous caning of tofu, and the heat generated by the quasi-interactive forum theatre led to a renewed chill in the live performance scene with the censors casting a cold eye on the arts, flashing their scissors again. This chill lasted for several years.)
The central character in Private Parts is one Warren Lee, host of a popular TV talk show. He’s a hot property MediaCorp (this show’s producer, in fact) is afraid of losing to a rival. The chat show that opening this stage show is called Today in Singapore and the topic of the day is some of the changes that have overtaken the island republic in the last ten years.
But TV audiences are fickle, so Warren and his producer decide to beef up ratings by looking for material that sells. Which means, of course, sex in unfamiliar packaging. (Nothing turns an audience fickle faster than getting bored with something they have already seen.)
Warren and producer decide to spark up the show with debates on some hot-button issues in Singapore, such as greater tolerance for transvestites and transsexuals. (The former dress like members of the opposite sex; the latter undergo surgery to change their sex.)
Soon thereafter, a most unfortunate golfing accident forces regular-guy Warren to travel surreptitiously to a nearby island and book into a clinic that specialises in reconstructive sexual surgery. (I myself am still trying to figure out how that golf accident caused Warren’s genital mutilation. If you have any ideas on that topic, write me care of this publication.) While there, Warren meets a group of congenial and verbally gifted transvestites about to undergo sex-change operations and decides to book them for his show. (Those sex-change operations go in both directions.)
Before long, one thing leads to another and one of the transsexuals falls in love with the attractive talk-show host and Warren finds himself drawn to this person. But as Warren makes daily sacrifices on the altar of conventionality, he cannot allow himself to give into his feelings for this individual who is so far outside the bounds of the conventional. The way that they move towards and then repel each other becomes the core of the story and provides the most touching moments and best scenes. To Michael Chiang’s credit, he does not offer any solution to their shared problem, but leaves the door open to several possibilities.
Private Parts is clearly intended to be a popular show - it had to be in order to fill most of those 2,000 odd seats in the Esplanade’s main hall. Consequently, it appeals to a wide audience - which means the common denominator is not all that high. The humour throughout is broad and easily digested, and popular bits fill in all the spaces.
One of those popular bits is a sultry dance number performed by a troupe of tall, leggy beauties which opens the show. To make it even more popular, this number concludes with a partial strip revealing that these leggy ladies are actually men in high drag. This notion of a Dreamgirls number was strong, but the men in drag were not able to pull it off deftly.
The humour is often risqué without ever taking risks. Some of the humour is low-grade schoolyard stuff, such as this exchange about the sexual plastic surgeons: ‘They make me whole’. “Oh, they make me hole too.” Oh, please. Also there is a headline, ‘MediaCorp Star Loses Membership to Golf Club”. Okay, that one is a little bit better, more in the range of low-brow humour for grown-ups.
A much better joke is dropped in as one of the transvestites waiting for the operation to make her a woman is about to leave the room and another character asks, “Are you going to be long?” The reply: “Not after Monday.”
Warren’s relationship with girlfriend Rosalind is not very deep and is itself a source of some good humour. On a phone conversation, they have almost nothing to talk about other than what each had for lunch. When Warren reports this, one of the transsexuals cogently remarks, “How romantic. (delicious pause) Is she a dietician?”
The script is also packed with in-jokes about the Singapore’s media scene, though the recent merger of MediaCorp and Media Works came too late for the author to deal with here.
Some of the characterisation is as broad as the humour. Warren’s superficial girlfriend Rosalind leads the pack in this regard. Chiang may have gone a little too far in making her so one-dimensional. But I have been assured by others that there are a lot of Rosalinds running around in present-day Singapore.
Be that as it may, Mrs Rani Ramakrishna, founder of the National Morals council, is even a broader characterisation. Actually, the editor-producer of Warren’s show and a nurse at the sex clinic stand pretty much should-to-shoulder with Mrs Ramakrishna in this dubious category of near-caricatures. If Chiang intends to work on the play even more (he should, if he plans to export it to some tougher markets), he has to work on giving these characters a little more depth and detail.
Speaking of detail, Chiang has not attended to all the details of the story, keeping them credible. For instance, post-surgery Warren is pumped up with painkillers, yet he remains not only awake but alert.
The acting in this production was rather mixed. Timothy Nga handled the central role of Warren Lee, and his performance itself was a mix of strong moments and weak sections. Of the latter, he was not totally convincing while talking to his producer on getting things straightened out with his show. Comedy is not Nga’s strongest suit either: while he did not kill any jokes, neither was he able to pull a bigger laugh out of a funny line or gesture than what the author and director had already handed him on a platter. Nga was fine in the persona of the talk-show host - polished and artificial. More importantly, Nga did show a talent for handling emotional moments nicely, so that Warren’s scenes with Mirabella generally came off well.
Head and shoulders above almost all the other performances (almost literally so) was Christian Lee as Mirabella. Lee showed a pinpoint talent for comedy, legitimately milking every laugh line, every look, every movement in a way that aided every scene he appeared in.
(His faking an orgasm rivalled Meg Ryan’s in When Harry Met Sally.)
Lee was also splendid in the play’s more serious moments. It takes two to make those emotional scenes so touching and Christian Lee was actually the stronger of the two. And when Mirabella suffered, we in the audience could feel ourselves.
The only competition Christian Lee had was from Kevin Murphy as Lavinia. Murphy was also splendid with the play’s comedy and he handled Lavinia’s serious scenes well. (Though Lavinia has fewer of these than so Mirabella and Warren.)
Yeo Yann Yann played Edward, the third main transsexual. Yeo did a fair job throughout, never rising above the material. However, she was not very good at all in her talk-show scene.
As suggested right above, Rosalind is a pretty empty character, and Jamie Yeo proved unable to instil any humanity or likeability in her. Yeo’s performance was almost as flat as the character itself.
Casey Lim’s direction deserves praise for the way he worked with the actors in the main roles to draw out the best performances. Lim also knew how to set up certain key moments to the best advantage of the script. For example, the ending was well-staged, with Warren sitting alone in a chair for several moments before moving on.
But it is hard to judge Lim’s artistry in the logistics of stage action. The truth is, the Esplanade main stage was clearly not the best place to mount this work. This is a play that demands a greater sense of intimacy in its key moments than the expanses of the Esplanade’s main house can possibly provide. Indeed, at times the stage demanded some unlikely moving about of the actors to justify the staging.
Apparently there had been some troubling tech problems on opening night, but these had all been attended to by the closing performance five days later. But there was one technical aspect which was inexplicably weak, considering who produced this how. The camera work on the TV show as we in the audience see it is was not of a high quality. In fact, it’s somewhat rough, as they only use one camera! Could not MediaCorp have provided a second camera? Come on, folks, it was your show.
Of similar vintage to Private Parts is Ovidia Yu’s Three Fat Virgins Unassembled. This one began its public life as a staged reading in ‘91, was given a full TheatreWorks production in ‘92 and has had a number of subsequent revivals since then. The most recent was at Singapore’s other, even newer arts centre, The Arts House, mounted by a young actor’s group called Buds youth Theatre.
Three Fat Virgins is about as far from a traditionally structured play like Private Parts as you can get while still remaining popular theatre. (And for all its free-form explorations, it is still popular theatre.) Rather than even hint at a plot, the work stitches together a large number of scenes around a few common themes. Some of these scenes segue logically into the next; others take leapfrog jumps from one unpleasant situation to another.
The central theme is, not surprisingly, the plight of fat virgins in Singapore. But as playwright Yu stresses, you do not really have to be fat to be a fat virgin; you do not even have to be a virgin. One character discovers after more than five years of marriage and two children that she has turned into a virgin again. In fact, Yu tells us, all you need to be a fat virgin is to be a woman.
Buttressed by this definition, Ovidia Yu proceeds to show us a broad gallery of Singaporean women trapped in unhappy marriages, in unhappy careers, in unhappy motherhood, or in unhappy social engagements (obligatory, of course). Some of these are very funny (an extended bit about a scientific experiment with seedlings allows for some very fine jokes), others less so. Likewise, some of her insights are quite sharp, others rather dull. For instance, to show the stupidity of her men, Yu has them tell really stupid jokes. For instance: “My wife’s on a seafood diet. When she sees food, she eats it.”
There was some updating on this work too, though nowhere near as much as with Private Parts. Nevertheless, the trot of time brought Red Bull being added to the science experiments, while Model Woman Corey Aquino became Hilary Clinton and Model Bimbo Tammy Baker (a former American televangelist) became Victoria Beckham. (A little unfair to Becks, I’d say.) Also, at the play’s end, the three fat virgins reassemble at the Fullerton Hotel instead of the Delphi.
The play was a good choice for a group like Buds Youth Theatre to take on, as it is very much an acting exercise, with each of the three virgins being asked to take on a variety of roles in short scenes. It’s also a good exercise for a young director, and here Buds’ Chris Ngyee did a rather admirable job. Ngyee employed the challenging oblong space of the Arts House Play Den well, setting the action at different parts of the room and keeping the flow between and within scenes at a good pace. In a show that requires energy and lick-quick changes, there were only a few moments when things slowed down unduly. More importantly, Ngyee saw to giving certain scenes a more leisurely pace when that was appropriate to the particular scene.
One of the actresses, Candice de Rozario, has a good deal of experience, including the production of Private Parts mentioned right above. She took on the role of the Woman, who is part-Narrator, part-whatever asshole of a man is needed at the moment. (Balanced and fair-minded this play is not.)
De Rozario wore her hair like a man, making her look a bit like a young version of Meatloaf. She was strong in discussing the Virgin syndrome towards the end - but bad in an overblown discussion of self-control. Also, in her turn as a businessman who sidelines as a theatre director, De Rozario spoke with a U.S. Southern accent of mainly Texas provenance, but she did nothing with it. The accent just seemed to be there for the effect with no connection to anything else in the scene. If you use an accent that draws attention to itself, you had better have a reason for doing so.
The three virgins were played by actresses training in the Buds programme. All three showed clear acting talent, though they also showed that they will need more experience before they reach a fully professional level. Each showed points of strength alongside weaknesses. Celine Rosa Tan and Esther Yuan were the most consistent. Tan was particularly good when playing the mother of a wannabe transsexual as well as the mother of the girl conducting the seedling experiment. She also proved good at playing young girls.
In her first appearance as Mavis Wee, Esther Yuan anticipated her boss’s lines when he recounts the special services he receives at a massage centre. She also reacts harshly to her boss in this scene, which begs the question of whether she would really she do such a thing in the real world of Singapore business. (It also undercut the next scene where Mavis complains about sexual harassment.)
But Yuan proved quite good as a marketing manager and as an a research entomologist being physically harassed by a Fort Canning guard. That scene also indicated how the director and performers has to bow to reality and change some stage directions. Here, the research scientist tripped rather than flipped the obnoxious guard.
While the third actress, Cheryl Lee, did not have as many strong moments as her fellows, she generally lent able support. In fact, most of the scenes which depended on all three performers working well together came off nicely with this trio.
The set was composed mainly of five boxes - two white, one each of pink, blue and yellow. No set designer was mentioned in the programme, but the evidence suggests that she or he was a shoe fetishist. The floor of the set was filled with a large array of unmatched shoes. The shoes were used in a number of ways, even being called into service tea cups in the opening scene. They were also called into service as a remote control and a flashlight.
Alright, the opening scene finds one of the virgins complaining that his Louis Feruad footwear is killing her, and there is a discussion of shoes in a later scene, but no indication that the role of footwear should be treated as a dominant motif. On the other hand, the production did occasionally make imaginative use of the shoes, so it was not a bad strategy really.
This is clearly not an easy show to do well, and Buds Youth Theatre is to be commended for the quite respectable job they did with it. Everyone involved with the production has something to be proud of.
By Richard LordQLRS Vol. 4 No. 1 Oct 2004