Twenty three-year-old actor Prak Sreymech can’t help but say the word ‘vagina’ a lot when talking about Phnom Penh’s latest production of playwright Eve Ensler’s taboo-breaking theatre phenomenon, The Vagina Monologues.
Asked whether she would use the Khmer yoa-nee (vagina) as freely as the English word, and Sreymech laughs – it is definitely not a comfortable subject of discussion for Khmer women, even with sisters.
When the stage play opened off Broadway 15 years ago, the title itself got people talking worldwide. The success of the show spawned a high-profile anti-violence campaign, V-Day, which is run in conjunction with performances of the play on stages around the world, traditionally on Valentine’s Day.
Tomorrow, The Vagina Monologues – the third performance to be staged in Phnom Penh, following predominantly foreigner-acted productions – will open in Meta House’s downstairs gallery.
A series of interwoven dialogues and monologues, the play explores the sublime, the traumatic and the most personal of female experience.
“Vaginas are not something everyone likes to talk about – women don’t want to talk about vaginas,” Sreymech says. “Cambodian people are very shy talking about that. But [the discussion] is not wrong. You have to know about it – I would like to change the minds of people about that.”
The all-female show is still as punchy as it was 15 years ago, director Teia Rogers says. Each year Ensler, who is now 59, adds a new monologue based on a current situation facing women. The most recent is a response to India’s rape crises.
For this production, the group is performing the 2004 version, which includes the tangential discussion, ‘If your vagina could wear clothes, what would it wear?’ and the moving old-age reflection The Flood.
The show will also include a special Cambodia-only reading of the Chbab Srey, the authoritative code for Cambodian womanhood.
“The Chbab Srey... controls women,” Sreymech says.
“They cannot walk so far (or) say bad words. There are some women who keep it inside. This is the thing I’d like to change. You have to stand up, you have to get up; nobody is going to stand up for you.”
With only part of the play performed with Khmer subtitle projections (because of limited resources, laments Rogers), the show will likely attract an expat audience – but that could change by the next production.
“We’re hoping that in the coming year we can create a Vagina Monologues with a Cambodian context,” Rogers says.
Sreymech, who is a traditional dance and music teacher at an international school, hopes one day to work with another to translate the play into Khmer. She says her first response to the script was laughter, then concern that she might be falling prey to something more sinister – like a sex movie.
However, the experience of rehearsing with the eight-woman cast, which includes women from Barbados, Ukraine, the US and UK, proved an empowering one, she says.
“It was really hard to get Khmer cast members because the content is in-your-face,” Rogers says of their youngest cast member.
“We tried to explain the content and there was a lot of giggling... that’s why Prak Sreymech is so remarkable. She was willing to take on the weight.”
The Vagina Monologues is on February 14 to 16, at Meta House, 7pm.
Tickets are $7 and available at Java Cafe and Arts. All proceeds go to support domestic violence prevention activities by Women Peace Makers.