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Women’s words: Seminal feminist play staged as a local fundraiser

The Phnom Penh Players’ latest show has brought fresh faces to the stage, eager to share the witty, profound Vagina Monologues with Cambodian audiences

Leather tap shoes, a gold sequin corset and top hat”, “A little black dress and red stilettos” and “chic prints in luxuriously soft materials, chandelier earrings, and stilettos”.

Not costume requirements for the Phnom Penh Players' latest show per se, but answers to the question “What would your vagina wear?” provided by the cast.

This was one of a number of bonding exercises that took place at rehearsals for The Vagina Monologues over the past month – a show whose success relies as much on the attitudes of its actors as it does on their acting ability.

The seminal work by Eve Ensler, which premiered in New York in 1996, consists of a sequence of monologues that each address aspects of womanhood, all starting with vaginas.

For Rachel McCarthy, who is directing the Players’ three-night run at Meta House on February 11, 12 and 13, camaraderie has been the most important thing to craft.

“It’s really a community theatre piece,” she said. “It’s about empowering all women to feel confident to get up and share their stores and share the stories of other women.”

Among the activities held in the run-up to the production was a vagina painting workshop held at local bar Show Box by one of the women involved.

“They’ll be for sale or auction on the performance night,” said McCarthy, adding: “The pictures will be quite abstract ... They won’t be literal drawings of our vaginas.”

The Vagina Monologues is based on roughly 200 interviews conducted by Ensler around the US in the early 1990s.

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There is huge breadth to the subjects covered: from the humorous chorus of names people give their vaginas (powder box, poochi, poopi, poopalu ... ), to the harrowing and unflinching descriptions of rape in My Vagina Was My Village, a monologue compiled from the testimonies of women raped during the Bosnian War.

Despite these clear themes, Mc-Carthy said that each piece was open to interpretation.

“It’ll be interesting to see which pieces really shine and which pieces people really connect to, because I think that changes every time the piece is put on,” she said.

McCarthy has been part of the show three times previously, although never in Phnom Penh.

“Since I’ve been involved in it, it’s really been a process of supporting all the women involved,” she said.

The supportive atmosphere was obvious during rehearsals on Monday, as the cast cheered on performers and offered up advice after each monologue was finished.

During one scene, Phnom Penh Players regular Frances Damon jumped up and down on the stage, and grabbed her crotch confidently as she performed, to rapturous applause.

“Baseball players are always grabbing themselves,” she said of her inspiration.

In a monologue that came shortly afterward, Emily Marques transitioned from being primly positioned on a chair to upside down, writhing and moaning as she spoke. Afterwards, she wondered if the noise might have disturbed the German class taking place in the next door room at Meta House.

“I did try to tone it down,” she said apologetically. Aside from possible nerves on the night, staging The Vagina Monologues is a straightforward affair – a chair and a microphone are the only props, and the majority of the women involved are sticking with holding scripts rather than learning lines.

“I think it was an easy pitch [for the Phnom Penh Players] and a good match for us as well,” said McCarthy, who presented the piece at one of the Players’ semiannual pitch meetings. “It involves grabbing together a bunch of women who are reading really interesting stories on a subject matter not often spoken about.”

Finding actors for the show was easy, she said. In fact, several pieces are being split between different actors due to the number of women who wanted to be involved – 17 in total. Only one of the monologues is being performed by a Cambodian woman – the finale, My Revolution Begins in This Body.

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Director Rachel McCarthy reads a monologue during Monday’s rehearsal at Meta House. Scott rotzoll

McCarthy said that to a certain extent the piece was culturally specific: “There are lots of American accents, and American stories,” she said.

“But we want to make sure this performance is really speaking on behalf of all women whose stories about violence and sexual violence go largely untold in Cambodia.”

The Vagina Monologues’ performance rights are made free during February every year so that theatre groups can stage benefit performances. Money from the Players’ production will be going towards SHE Investments, an organisation that helps Cambodian women scale up their businesses beyond the micro level.

Celia Boyd, managing director of SHE Investments, attended Monday’s rehearsal and expressed her gratitude for the partnership. She said that she thought the play resonated in the Cambodian context despite its American setting.

“I’m not sure about the sexuality part so much, but the celebration of women’s strength is transferable,” she said. “And as a feminist organisation, anything that celebrates the diversity and strength of women is pretty on par with where we’re at.”

The actors involved – who represent a wide range of ages and nationalities – said that they felt the play spoke to their concerns as well.

“This is the kind of conversation I would have with my friends at a bar in Kenya,” said performer Maggie Kim, beaming. “We talk about all these things. We talk about how men literally do not know what to do with our vaginas 80 per cent of the time.”

She said she wanted to be involved in a piece that was empowering for audiences as well as its performers.

"You don’t have to say anything – you just sit down and listen and then later on you can think about it,” she said. “I thought: I want to be a part of that.”

The Vagina Monologues is to be performed on February 11, 12 and 13 and 7pm at Meta House, #37 Sothearos Boulevard. Tickets cost $5 with all profits going towards SHE Investments

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