“Rather than just a hoot and a giggle, Mark wrote an insightful story about the lives of three men; their aspirations, their hopes and their dreams. Suddenly we were dealing with real people, real men with gender issues. We are privy to their bitchiness, their joy, their love, their sorrow. We are allowed glimpses of their inner thoughts and their sometimes painful journeys together and apart.” – Joe Hasham, Men in Heels Artistic Director
Part of The Actor’s Studio’s 30th anniversary, a two-year celebration where 30 productions will be staged until 2019, Men in Heels was a treat for the funny bone and the soul. Going in, you wouldn’t know what to expect from a show called Men in Heels, except maybe a succession of drag performances and dance numbers. And this was almost what the show was going to be, as Joe’s initial idea for the production would be having a group of performers and dancers dance drag-style to 3 or 4 songs. But what you don’t expect is to fall in love with the snarky remarks and lives of these men. And the man responsible for this is KLPAC’s own award-winning resident director and scriptwriter Mark Beau de Silva, that turned the original idea for the play on its head by writing something that hits closer to home and attempts to shed light on the real issues faced by Malaysia’s “invisible” trans community.
The Hard Truths
The director and scriptwriter whose last full-length production Marrying Me won the Audience Choice Award and BOH Cameronian Arts Award also played one of the lead ‘queens’ in the play, Peter who eventually embraces her persona as Caroline Sik Nee. His talented co-stars included the likes of Ivan Chan, a BOH Cameronian Arts Award Nominee and freelance performer as Bryan, who eventually transitions into Virgin Nyah and Oh My English! star and Best Dancer and Choreographer for 2 years running, Zhafir Muzani – the sassy and sensual Ilya who becomes queen Labia Labu.
Their performances were nothing short of stellar. While it may be easy to get caught up in the hilarious and uproarious antics of the girls, as they get catty and hurl the best and bitchiest insults at each other, there is an emotional core at the heart of each character. For a play that could have very easily become lost in gender stereotypes for the sake of a cheap laugh, the production did marvelously in first making us fall in love with each character and then sitting through the emotional rollercoaster rides that are their lives.
While we laugh at Zhafir’s spicy Malay queen caricature who loves herself a policeman in uniform and uses her sexuality as a weapon, there are some of us that shed a silent tear when she describes being used by her classmates while being taunted mercilessly. Ivan’s performance as a dramatic drag star is layered by his character’s past as someone who loved his best friend and bullied his own effeminate friend, to hide his own guilty feelings. Mark’s character had grown up abused and hated by an aunt she respected, who had turned her sexuality against her.
While due credit must be given to the emotional depth of their performances, for some of us, it hits a bit too close to home. It’s a reality that happened to us, a relative or just someone we loved. Or all the people we don’t know but our hearts go out to anyway. The most moving scene I witnessed was when all three characters reenact their experiences at job interviews, almost going through the motions of being turned down or sexualised because it happens too damn much. And that was too damn much for me. Mark’s storytelling must be lauded, as the play delves into the psyche of these three and seeks to ask many questions about the world – do we let the clothes we wear define us? Do we let the gender roles we play define us? What about us are we even left to define?
Lights, Camera, Queens!
But if this play were all about its tragedies and emotional backstories, it would have risked alienating an audience that might not have been able to relate. Which is where the glitz and glamour comes into play, and credit must be given to the fabulous costumes and makeup that made the queens really look like the over-the-top 80s drag queens we’ve come to love. A number of people are responsible for making this theatricality come to life. The choreographer Fairuz Fee Tauhid brought out the actors’ inner fabulousness by mirroring the art of drag that queens from all over the world have perfected. The performers were so committed that they also had to undergo two months of training to learn how to walk and dance in heels, which they did better than I ever could.
The director of photography, Kairil Bahar, was responsible for the stunning cut scenes where the men performed hit 80s numbers like ‘I Need A Hero’ and slow numbers like Janis Ian’s ‘At Seventeen’. All these cut scenes were varied, with different tones that were needed to match the progression of each queen’s story, like Zhafir’s character lip-syncing to old Malay songs, Saloma style, and these helped bring out the authenticity of the show’s drag production numbers.
One of the best parts of these drag performances were the outfits and makeup the actors were decked out in. Glorious, glitzy and over-the-top furs, beads, sequins, rhinestones, headdresses, ballgowns and not to mention, heels! A queen would have died for these outfits and I know I’m speaking for some of the audience when I say I had half a mind to jump out of my seat and join them. This delightful part of the production has to be handed to costume designer Domonique Devorsine and makeup artists Avelyn Lew.
On the surface, this play definitely did what it set out to do, which is have the audience in a roaring good time. But scratch that surface a little more and you’ll find yourself enraptured by the stories these characters tell, the same stories you’ve probably heard from friends, family and maybe even yourself. And for Malaysian society where, to quote the play, “there are no cissies, only the strong and the brave”, this play makes us go back and think about that part of society we leave behind. Do yourself a favour, watch Men in Heels.