Michael Chiang’s favourite script rings true even today.
When it first premiered in 1992, playwright Michael Chiang’s Private Parts was groundbreaking for its bold choice to depict transsexuals onstage, not as cheap forms of entertainment or the butt of jokes, but as fully fleshed out characters with their own personal lives and stories to tell. Even today, 26 years on, with plays dealing with the concept of transsexuals few and far between, Private Parts remains one of the most celebrated local plays for daring to address and portray transsexuals in all their humanity.
Directed by Beatrice Chia-Richmond, the 2018 restaging of Private Parts sticks to its original 1994 script,following popular TV personality Warren Lee (newcomer Jason Godfrey) as he struggles to prove himself and excel at his new position as a current affairs broadcast journalist. When an accident leaves him in need of surgery at a specialist clinic in Batam, he meets three pre-op transsexuals – snarky, middle-aged Mirabella (Chua En Lai), youthful girl with a heart of gold Lavinia (Shane Mardjuki) and the quiet, troubled Edward (Zee Wong). Listening to their stories and befriending them, he decides to bring them onto his show and give them a chance to tell their story and show the world who they are inside.
Wong Chee Wai’s white walled set shifts well between the slick corporate newsroom and the clean veneers of the clinic (given a touch of the glamorous in an overhead chandelier), and each scene manages to feel distinct with the help of Michael Chan’s lighting design. The play also manages to take audiences back in time to the 90s, from characters donning big shoulder pads, to using clunky telephones, to a nostalgic soundtrack of all the biggest pop hits of the era.
Private Parts makes a very strong case for its relevance and why it deserves to be restaged now, particularly in the light of heated debate over Penal Code 377A rearing its head once more this year; the play’s opening panel discussion draws attention to ‘conservative Singapore’ about to open adult entertainment district ‘Bugis World’ – a moral panic that would still not seem out of place even today. Andrew Marko and Frances Lee here, play their stereotypical middle-aged businessman and uptight housewife well enough to turn the panel into a comedic affair, disguising the real issues at hand with slapstick humour, while Jason Godfrey delivers a television star performance with his effortless TV charm and voice.
It is when the action shifts to the clinic later on, that things begin to get truly interesting as the stars and protagonists make their appearance. Chua En Lai and Shane Mardjuki draw immediate applause from the moment they step onstage in their snug fitting dresses, entertaining with their catty banter and whiplash comebacks. If it is any of the main cast that should be praised, it is Zee Wong who does her best to bring out the utter hopelessness and frustration Edward carries around in him, and eventually delivers a stirring monologue in the play’s climax, the most genuinely moving line in the entire play that perfectly captures the government’s confused views and policies that have very real impact it has on real transgender people.
While managing to deliver on comedic timing and laugh out loud jokes, it is perhaps in the emotional scenes that Private Parts falters, especially in the play’s core relationship between Mirabella and Warren. En Lai and Jason Godfrey are both interesting to watch as individuals, but require a little more buildup and chemistry to truly convince the audience that this odd couple stands a fighting chance of ending up together, making the play’s eventual climax feel far less high stakes than intended, and losing the emotional thrust of the conclusion altogether, evoking laughs instead of tears.
However, if anything, it is the fabulous Dreamgirls (Aldafi Adnan, Andy Benjamin Cai and Andreas Chua) who are Private Part’s most mesmerising cast members. Opening the entire show, the trio emerge in sparkling red gowns, performing a titillating number before stripping off and effortlessly flowing into a high energy vogue (appropriately, set to Madonna’s iconic song of the same name). Possessing stellar chemistry, most of their appearances are new for this production, and it’s sheer delight each time they perform, whether they’re dancing a saucy tango to ‘Sway’, or come together in stunning, form-fitting golden gowns and voluminous wigs to perform an emotional sequence set to Wilson Phillips’ ‘Hold On’.
Each number (choreographed by Andy Benjamin Cai) feels appropriate for the scene and always garnering applause from the audience. Besides the hugely enjoyable throwback to the 90s with the nostalgic soundtrack, each of Tube Gallery’s outfits, Ashley Lim’s wigs and makeup from The Makeup Room allow the Dreamgirls to undergo a full drag transformation, more feminine than actual women and always a sight to behold.
In Private Parts, beneath the laugh out loud comedy, big dresses and TV star smiles lies a real, heartbreaking story that calls for change. It’s not hard to see why Michael Chiang himself considers this his favourite play, and we wish that this staging, more important now than ever, had managed to endear and make us feel more for its characters rather than treat them as mere spectacle and caricature. Perhaps then, this highlights that more than ever, we need to talk more about these issues and continue to have conversations surrounding the subject, and at least with this production, we now have a platform for such discussion, hopefully encouraging us all to lobby for real change and better understanding of those who are a little different from the norm.
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Photo Credit: Michael Chiang Playthings
Performance attended 3/11/18
Private Parts plays at the Drama Centre Theatre from 2nd to 18th November 2018. Tickets available from SISTIC