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Michael Chiang’s gender-bending comedy Private Parts returns to the stage

In an era now charged with discussions on sexuality, Chiang’s play makes a timely return, this time directed by Beatrice Chia-Richmond.

Legend surrounds Private Parts. In 1992, when Michael Chiang’s gender-bending comedy was staged for the Singapore Arts Festival, theatre critic Hannah Pandian wrote: “Private Parts, with its remarkable performances and poignant message, is a special production that should not close until every person in this country has seen it.”

Directed by Ong Keng Sen, the play centred on a non-sexual romance between a male heterosexual TV presenter named Warren (Bervyn Lee) and a transgender man named Mirabella (Koh Boon Pin) who’s about to undergo a sex-change operation. Because the topic of sexuality was largely taboo then, much of the audience sat in rapt attention, sometimes laughing, sometimes weeping.

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In an era now charged with discussions on sexuality in the developed world, from gay marriage and transgender children to intersectionality and #MeToo, Chiang is now reviving Private Parts with director Beatrice Chia as a kind of reflection of how sexuality was viewed 26 years ago. If the new Private Parts production appears, well, dated, it’s a deliberate choice on the producers’ part to capture the zeitgeist of the early 1990s.

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Chiang says: “I’m always updating my scripts, such as Army Daze, for new productions. But with Private Parts, Beatrice (the director) and I really felt it was more interesting for the audience to see the play as it was seen two-and-a-half decades ago, and see how society has changed.”

The new Private Parts has Filipino-Canadian model-actor-host Jason Godfrey in the role of Warren, the current affairs TV presenter who’s something of a himbo. An unfortunate golfing incident injures his manhood, and he has to visit a specialist clinic to get it fixed. There he meets Mirabella (now played by comedian Chua Enlai), a transvestite who’s set on having a male-to-female genital surgery. The two strike up an unlikely friendship that changes their lives.

The cast comprises mostly experienced theatre actors. The exception is lead actor Godfrey, who jokingly admits: “I haven’t acted in theatre for 20 years – and that was when I was in university. Most of the acting I do is on TV, and with TV, you just memorise the lines of one scene, then forget them when you’re shooting the next. With theatre, you have to memorise the lines for the entire play, and that actually made me slightly nervous… But Beatrice assured me I’ll be fine.”

Meanwhile, his co-star Chua is best known for his comedic impersonations on satirical TV show The Noose. But he has a long history of theatre acting, most notably as a victim of paedophilia in the heart-wrenching drama Fundamentally Happy by The Necessary Stage. His performance as the psychologically complex Mirabella is one to look out for.

The Dreamgirls, a flouncy cross-dressing pop trio that’s a highlight of any Private Parts production, will be played by Hirzi Zulkiflie, Andy Chai and Andreas Chua. Hirzi is the Youtube sensation who recently raised eyebrows when he released the confronting music video This Is Singapore, inspired by Childish Gambino’s landmark video This Is America. Hirzi’s video has chalked up more than 160,000 views since its release on Aug 1, 2018.

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Private Parts runs at the Drama Centre from Nov 2 to 18, 2018. Tickets from Sistic.

This article was originally published in The Business Times.

Photo: Michael Chiang Playthings