>the vaginalogue by dramabox

>reviewed by james koh

>date: 6 apr 2000
>time: 8pm
>venue: the guinness theatre
>rating: ****1/2

>tired already? go home then
>review junkie? whitney, give them this click to sniff

>look, we know that you need to know that we, as responsible reviewers, have some quantifiable categories to rate productions, and are not just relying on some undefinable instinct or gut feeling. So to put your mind at ease, we will give you a logical rating system based on the practitioner's vision / and the reviewer's response of a particular production. Here it is then: ***** : Transcendent / Rapturous. ****: Crystal / Appreciative. ***: Transmitted / Thoughtful. **:Vague / Unsatisfied. * : Uncommunicated / Mystified. Yet in the end, you will feel that this is (1) a cheap attempt to justify the subjective arbitrariness of our rating system (2) buttressed by an interest in the logical (and inevitable) categorisation of such productions, which is (3) undermined by the cheapness of the attempt, and (4) confused by the creeping feeling you are getting that we are dead serious in our feeling that this rating system is an accurate description of the content, intent and quality of the production. Oh please -- does it even matter now? Look, at least we tried.

>>>>>private made public

The French feminist, Helene Cixous, once told women that 'your body must be heard.' THE vaginaLOGUE followed this imperative, by allowing the stories, the tales and the myths of the vagina to be told. Based on the off Broadway hit by Eve Ensler, this was a one woman show in Mandarin by actress Li Xie that was presented from an Asian perspective, with a collage of stories provided by and interviews taken with a diverse group of women in Singapore.

Divided into 9 chapters, this production covered nearly all aspects of the vagina, from its natural cycles of menstruation, fertility and pregnancy, to the atrocities committed against it, like rape and genital mutilation. This was a journey that not only wrestled the word and its cultural baggage from the bigotry of patriarchy - the words 'chee bye' and 'cunt' have become swear words after all - but in the process celebrated the part of the female anatomy that has for a long time been suppressed and considered dirty and sordid. (Moreover, the Chinese characters of the vagina is 'yin dao', where the prefix 'yin' is that of the 'yin-yang' (female/male) dichotomy, and therefore contains all the negative attributes associated with the binary polarisation inherent in the patriarchal system).

What could have been a piece of sensationalist theatre that touched on the taboo subject in a superficial manner, was instead brutally honest, profoundly provocative and essentially human. The production dealt with the vagina in a matter-of-fact manner, thereby affirming the right of these stories of the vagina to be told, as something that was natural and instinctive. In stripping away the social layers that have condemned this integral part of the female body as something that was not to be seen or mentioned, these personal stories became all the more genuine, all the more real - be it the pleasure of a woman who finds her clitoris through a lesbian relationship, or the joy and pain of an expectant mother giving birth, or the touching and sometimes funny interviews with women who were asked if the vagina could sing, what song would it be.

>>'The highlight of the evening was the luminous performance by the gifted actress Li Xie.'

And the production must be commended from refusing to shy away from what some squeamish people might have considered to be in bad taste - during the chapter of menstruation, a large picture of a used and bloodied tampon was projected on screen, while the end of the performance had a photograph of a vagina on the screen. By forcing the audience to confront such images, the production made us realise that the discomfort caused and the tendency to label such images as shameful is a bias foisted on us by a hetero-sexist culture.

At the same time, the play was highly layered in that it revealed the complex and insidious ways in which patriarchy worked within society. It showed that vagina was not a neutral place but a contested site, a battleground for competing ideologies. An example is the tendency of the media to locate the vagina as an object of embarrassment, a burden that women must carry throughout their lives. Clever parodies of television commercials were screened throughout the production, offering various products for the vagina, be it insurance against rape or sanitary pads called 'Shh' (as usual, the vagina and its natural cycles are something that must not be mentioned).

Another example is the way the scene on female mutilation was presented as a cooking show, the ironic distance in which a piece of pork representing the vagina was cut up, torn apart and sewn together in graphic detail, made it all the more horrific and grotesque. Meanwhile, the Chinese story of Mulan, the girl who dressed up as a guy to fight in war, was interweaved into the local stories, thereby suggesting the complex ways in which the female body, and the vagina in particular, have been en-gendered throughout history.

But the highlight of the evening was the luminous performance by the gifted actress Li Xie. Her versatility was amazing - be it the informal banter with the audience at the start of the performance, as she asked us (even the guys) to draw what we think our vaginas look like on the programme, to the awkward charm of a girl-next door who tries to find her clitoris, to a whole range of responses of real people when asked about the menstruation cycle. Together with the imaginative use of multimedia - like the slow spread of a red liquid over a scientific diagram of a vagina projected on screen to suggest menstruation -- she left an indelible mark on the memory of the audience with her captivating performance.

Some people might argue that to locate the vagina as a form of female essence is to work within the framework of biological determinism. By doing this, by admitting that there is a natural division between men and women, history is naturalised - that the categories of 'men' and 'women' have always existed and will always exist. Consequently, the social phenomenon that expresses the oppression of women is naturalised, making change difficult and impossible. After all, as Simone de Beauvoire once famously said 'One is not born a woman, one becomes one'. But what THE vaginaLOGUE does is to open up a space in which the female body, the vagina, is allowed to speak freely, to comment on its relation to the social construct of gender, thereby allowing a dialogue to be set up between them. As LI Xie said before the performance, it was not that women were afraid to talk about their vaginas, but that no one had ever asked them about it before or given them an opportunity to do so.

In the US, 'The Vagina Monologues' is a celebrity-celebrated affair, where a new production with Claire Danes and Gina Gershon is opening soon in New York. In good old Singapore, the National Arts Council decided to withdraw its funding from The vaginaLOGUE a few days before its opening night - on the grounds that it is 'uncomfortable' with various aspects of the performance itself, and not the contents of the play. (Mind you, this year's Arts Festival 2000 is said to be 'innovative' and 'cutting edge' - obviously there are limitations and a criterion of good taste as to how 'innovative' and 'cutting edge' one can be.) Kudos must thus be given to the Drama Box for being brave enough to put on this production, and to the talented Li Xie, who reminded the audience that gender is not passively scripted on the body, but rather constantly and continually put on under constraint with both anxiety and pleasure.