This review contains some spoilers of a few of the sight gags and plot points in Private Parts.
Private Parts was first performed in 1992, and in this staging, it hasn’t been re-written. Given that in it, transgender characters and the people around them attempt to articulate what being transgender means, how the rest of the world relates to trans folk, and vice versa, this creates a problem from the outset. Arguably, the larger world, both in more progressive circles and in the mainstream, has evolved in important ways with regards to how we understand gender. To put it bluntly, the writing, even with a play set specifically in 1990, is dated and often jarring.
There is nothing inherently wrong with presenting a play that offers a kind of time capsule, but I would be remiss in this case not to note the kind of harm that a project like this has the potential to cause, articulated with passion and bluster by Clara Tan at Rice.
I could not help but feel that at multiple turns, this is a case of missed opportunity, and muddled directorial and design choices undermining strong work from some of the actors.
Warren Lee (Jason Godfrey) is a TV actor turned current affairs talk show host. His producer (Jo Tan) thinks he is an inept himbo, hired for his looks rather than ability. He hosts an episode that’s intended as a ratings bonanza, centering on Singapore Tourism Promotion Board’s proposal to create an adult theme park with fabulous drag queens, an example of which is presented by The Dreamgirls (Adalfi Adnan, Andy Benjamin Chai and Andreas Chua), a trio of queens. The in-studio discussion features a guest Betsy (Frances Lee) who represents the conservative (funless) forces opposing the project. The episode goes to hell in a handbasket; pressured and diminished by his producer, Warren goes home to his girlfriend, Rosalind (also Lee).
Warren meets with a golfing accident, and ends up at Falcon Crest Medical Centre, a luxury clinic specialising in sex change operations. He is there to have his genitalia reconstructed. There, he meets three trans people awaiting their surgeries, Lavinia (Shane Mardjuki), Mirabella (Chua Enlai), Edward (Zee Wong), and a very fey male nurse Rudy (Andrew Marko).
Months later, Warren and Rosalind meet everybody from Falcon Crest at Lavinia’s wedding. Warren convinces his three trans friends to appear on his show to talk about being trans. The episode collapses as Mirabella asks if Warren could love her.
Later still, Warren meets Mirabella again. Rosalind’s left him, Lavinia’s left Singapore with her husband, Edward has also left for Hong Kong to get married, something he can’t get legally recognised in Singapore. Warren and Mirabella do not end up a couple.
All of this is presented in classic Michael Chiang style, with punchlines stacked atop each other, propelling to heights of spectacular, colourful comedy, and then plunging to a tender and possibly tragic ending. At least as is written.
This production however, is ridden with so many problems that this turnaround never quite happens.
As is the case with many of the plays of Michael Chiang, the characters are written in what can look like very broad strokes, archetypes even, whose sole purpose seem to be delivering a series of comedic setups and punchlines. It is the actors’ challenge to fill these characters out, to find nuance, and make caricatures human. Unfortunately, Jason Godfrey in the lead role of Warren Lee never quite meets this challenge. Godfrey never appears to find layers in the text, nor the humanity of his character; his best moments are when he nails television presenter speech with an edge of panic simmering underneath. Dissapointingly, he plays almost every other scene, be it in studio, at home with his girlfriend, at a hospital meeting strangers or at a wedding among friends, with a similar affect.
A choice was made for Mirabella and Lavinia to speak in some kind of falsetto. While it is true that some trans women who work with speech therapists do end up speaking in their higher registers, the choice vastly limits these actors in the range of their vocal instrument. And thus, we land in the uneasy place of seeing men performing women by sounding airy and delicate. I saw the play at its gala opening, where, at the end of the performance, Chua Enlai stepped out of character to introduce director Beatrice Chia-Richmond. Chua, in his own deep voice, sounded so full of life, bubbly, a little bit bitchy, even, highlighting the missed opportunity contained in the choice of falsetto voices. Unhampered by a narrow idea of a cis-woman’s voice (Chia-Richmond’s own voice, for example, is deep), Chua’s lines as Mirabella might have landed so much harder.
This moment crystallised the question of casting and representation that has dogged this production since it was announced. Why are trans women played by men? Why is a trans man played by a woman? Many have speculated that with the cost of making theatre, and thus the need for bankable stars, and the difficulty of the roles concerned, there just aren’t that many transgender actors locally who would be a fit. Which is fair. But what do we believe about trans women to insist that they can only be played by men, and not women?
A large part of what drives the text of Private Parts is rhythm. It starts off fast paced and accelerates with free-wheeling, laugh out loud comedy till Warren hosts his three new friends on his talk show, when shit, as they say, gets real. It then turns to this tragic image of star-crossed (possibly) lovers. The first half of that equation doesn’t quite happen in this production, in part because the jokes don’t quite land every time: some performances – like Andrew Marko’s Nurse Rudy – are such broad caricature, as to feel distractingly problematic. The choice to insert dance sequences featuring songs from the 1990s during scene changes may have been meant to set the period of the play. Instead it stopped the the play’s rhythm dead in its tracks.
There were definitely strong performances in this production though. Jo Tan as a neurotic TV producer, a slightly masculine woman, working within a system with complicated gender politics, manages to telegraph all of that in her very short moments on stage. Zee Wong performs Edward as a man who would rather not be the centre of attention, a foil to Lavinia and Mirabella; her restraint also sets up Edward’s outburst on the set of the talk show, the real turning point of the play. He speaks of the deep injustice of, on the one hand, being called up for National Service and on the other, being denied the ability to get married, the state simultaneously exploiting and denying his identity. That place of not knowing whether to laugh or cry? Zee Wong gets us there.
One of the difficulties of re-stagings, especially with a different creative team, as in this case, is that the work lives in the shadow of the original. It can be a hard ghost to be haunted by. But this production feels like it is actually trying to figure out how to be that 1992 production (directed by Ong Keng Sen).
I cannot fathom why else a series of decisions regarding staging and design were made, except that they are holdovers from that original production. In the talk show scenes, the choice to set TV cameras and a live feed was puzzling; the Drama Centre Theatre is not so large that audiences cannot see the faces of actors on stage. The set, as designed, isn’t large enough to accommodate a talkshow set, cameras and studio.
Consider too, the staging of Lavinia’s wedding, when inexplicably, the bride enters via one of the doors in the auditorium and proceeds to mince her way to the stage, squeezing between the lip of the stage and the front row of the audience in a giant hooped skirted gown, and not for comedic effect. It was almost as if the director wished the theatre had different architecture, and was forced to make do.
Costuming seemed to suffer from odd choices, that seemed to work against text. Most jarring for me was the Dreamgirls stripping from giant red fishtail gowns into opaque black tights and nipple pasties. Why strip? Why would a drag queen wear full-legged tights under a full-length dress if she wasn’t going to pad her hips? And indeed, what drag queen would strip a dress off to reveal bunched up, ill-fitting tights? Why is attention diverted from the crotch by dimension obscuring opaque matte black tights? Are these girls tucked? How come we don’t see panties? Why pull attention to the chest with pasties when the area of contention in the play is genitalia? Why tassel pasties on flat chests when there was going to be no attempt to twirl them? In the 1992 production the Dreamgirls stripped down to black briefs on otherwise naked bodies, with foil stars placed atop bulging crotches, creating the effect of pixilation in Japanese porn – censorship that draws attention to the censored bits. The scene in this production looks like it was trying to replicate this 1992 sequence, but somehow ran into a new found modesty, and there was not a moment taken to reimagine how to make meaning. So, a moment that was, in 1992, rich with layers, meaning, gender-fucking, and entertainment value, became a silly little moment of pointless, bad drag.
Which perhaps encapsulates how I felt about the production as a whole. It’s almost as if this production hasn’t asked critical questions about why this show is being staged now. What it is saying. What has changed and what hasn’t.
As I’ve noted, the cultural context has shifted some, maybe not enough, but perhaps it makes a statement about the company that is producing it. This is the first production of Michael Chiang Playthings, a new company created, as its name might suggest, to stage the works of Michael Chiang. It would, almost by definition, be interested in the canonisation of the playwright and his work. I won’t question the desire to canonise, but perhaps future productions of the company ought to be helmed with greater confidence, and a stronger hand in steering writing towards theatre.
Private Parts by Michael Chiang Playthings runs from 2 – 18 November 2018 at the Drama Centre Theatre.