New theatre company Zebra Crossing, helmed by Artistic Director Loretta Chen, reconceptualised Eve Ensler's famous monologues about the taboo topic of the vagina with a staging that hit close to home. The Vagina Monologues is well-loved for being frank, hard-hitting and shocking, and Chen's "take no prisoners" approach was true to this spirit. But given that The Vagina Monologues has been staged several times in Singapore over the past few years, shock value alone would no longer be enough to sustain another production.
So what was different about Zebra Crossing's Monologues? First, it really broke with the format of the monologue by involving as many as nine women (compared to the original three) and dramatising several of the monologues into short sketches. Rather than only having a stark, intimate conversation with the audience, some of the monologues became stories, acted out onstage, with actors engaged in dialogue with one another. In addition, various bells and whistles were used to spice up the sketches, including multimedia backdrops, an incursion into the auditorium, recorded interviews, and even a sensuous pole-dance (which made me wonder how the censors let this one get through). There was also an opportunity a for visual showcase: at the end, each actress appeared as a female icon or stereotype: beauty queen, SIA girl, cheerleader, policewoman, nurse, Peranakan matriarch, etc.
Did it work? All things considered, yes. The combination of nine women brought much colour and variety to the stage: there was the elegant and sassy Elnina, the larger-than-life Asha Edmunds, the versatile Elizabeth Tan, and the deadpan Loke Loo Pin, to name a few. The characters in the Monologues morphed from being voices to being physical people. The overall effect was that of great fun. While the effect was less intimate than Ensler's original staging, this made the characters easier to relate to, and their stories less abstract. Given the size of the venue, the decision to stage an ensemble-sized show rather than a small and intimate one was wise. Some moments felt over the top, but the tone of the production was, appropriately, one of proud, joyful revelation.
Another notable characteristic of the production was its insistence on placing itself in a local context, incorporating the voices of our Chinese, Malay, Indian and Eurasian into Ensler's North American tribe. Alongside "cunt", there was "cheebai". When the women talked about their first periods, they became schoolgirls in blue pinafores mingling with the audience, speaking English, Cantonese, Malay and Hindi, and distributing Kotex products with wild abandon. The finale, where a woman lists the different kinds of orgasmic sounds that women make, really played to the galley. Stock characterizations of the elements of Singapore society were included in the list, giving rise to the Ah Lian moan and many others. But the thunderous cackling that it evoked came straight from a uniquely Singaporean place, proving the profound resonance of this taboo topic with the audience.
The Vagina Monologues was not just about taboo bashing, either. Director Chen's inventive dramatizations encompassed the silly, the sweet and the deeply thought-provoking. The monologue on domestic violence subverted the polite triteness of dinner party conversations by having the protagonist recount to her tai tai friends incidents of marital abuse, while they all giggled as if the conversation had been about the lightest gossip. It managed to be at once funny and disturbing. The Vagina Monologues also reminded us of the real statistics about domestic violence in Singapore, giving immediate relevance to Elizabeth Tan's sobering monologue about the same topic.
I feel ungracious for suggesting it, but some chopping could have made
The Vagina Monologues even more fabulous. A sketch on women's
right and short skirts came off as more shrill than strong. Coming after
the pole dance, the sequence made me wonder if there was a possibility
for continuity between these sections that had not been sufficiently
realised (i.e. the idea of women claiming their rights to express their
sensuality without the interference of men). Another sketch that didn't
quite work was that of the Angry Vagina, which was a shame as this put
to waste the talents of the actress (Judy Ngo).
Nevertheless, Zebra Crossing deserves credit for being daring, honest and inventive, and for successfully re-inventing this iconic work into something that is utterly unique, utterly its own.
New theatre company Zebra Crossing, helmed by Artistic Director Loretta Chen, re-conceptualises Eve Ensler's famous monologues about the taboo topic of the vagina. The Vagina Monologues is well-loved for being frank, hard-hitting and shocking, and Chen's "take no prisoners" approach was true to this spirit. So what was different about this production? First, it really broke with the format of the monologue by involving as many as nine women and dramatising several of the monologues. Second, it placed itself very much in a local context, incorporating the voices of the Chinese, Malay and Indian into Ensler's North American tribe, creating many hilarious moments. In addition, various bells and whistles were used, including multimedia backdrops, an intervention into the audience stalls, interviews with local actresses, and even a sensuous pole-dance (which made me wonder how the censors let this one get through). The fun and energy onstage were sizzling at times; at other times, it helped to mask mediocre acting performances. Despite these theatrics, the tone of the production was more tender, a contrast to the raw realism of the original monologues. The nine women created a sense of community that was more varied, less angry and more accessible. Zebra Crossing has been daring, honest and inventive, and it has transformed this iconic work into something utterly unique, utterly its own.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /