I don't think I have ever seen an original play in Thailand that is as moving and satisfying as Chuichai Saneha. In Thailand's dialogue-driven department, such meaty writing is rare. So is such a complete aesthetic experience.
Bandit Kaewwanna and Pramote Sangsorn in Chuichai Saneha.
Plays usually don't sell out their tickets a month in advance either, so this modest and beautiful production is already some kind of a phenomenon.
Chuichai Saneha, directed by Bhanbhassa Dhubtien and written by ParidaManomaipibul, is part of Democrazy Theatre Studio's Demo Homemade Project 2. The project began last year with the queer version of Neil Simon's Odd Couple, also directed by Bhanbhassa. In contrast to the studio's Demo Classic that features adaptations of Western classics, this project focuses more on stories mined from the Thai society.
Based on a 1960s real-life tragedy, Chuichai Saneha tells the story of Manote (Bandit Kaewwanna), or Sida, a transgender classical dancer from a wealthy family, whose beauty was something of a legend, and her tempestuous relationship with a taxi driver, Chip (Pramote Sangsorn).
Their romance was plagued by Manote's possessiveness and constant suspicion that Chip was having an affair with one woman or another. After seven suicide attempts, Manote finally succeeded in taking her own life, convinced that Chip no longer loved her. Chip entered into a brief monkhood for his lover before committing suicide. Their coffins were placed together at Wat Hua Lamphong, and this tragedy has since become known as tumnanrak long khu (the two-coffin love legend).
Parida deftly interweaves Manote and Chip's story with that of Anong (Thanyarat Pradittan) and her marriage to Wat (Malis Choeysophon), set in the 90s, and later that of her son, Anon (Witwisit Hiranyawongkul), in present-day Bangkok. Wat lives a double life: one as a husband and father, another as a lover of a man, Jakkrit (Thitawin Kamcharoen). When Jakkrit leaves him, Wat commits suicide, dying in front of his stunned wife, who knows of her husband's love affair all along. The teenage Anon, unaware of the real cause of his father's death, has a troubled relationship with his mother and struggles to understand, through the story of Manote and Chip, whether there is a possibility of love for a gay man like him.
Anchoring all these stories and a symbol of survival is Ann, or Jay Ann (Sanchai Uaesilapa), the transgender best friend of Manote who once danced the part of Benyakai, the demon in the Ramayana who transforms herself into the corpse of Sida to trick Rama into believing that his wife is dead.
Parida tells these stories of love and heartbreak without any political undertone. What move me the most, however, are the scenes of romance between the gay couples. Portrayals of gay characters as merely flamboyant, screeching sidekicks and comic relief are still prevalent on stage, TV and in film. More realistic, sensitive and nuanced depictions of gay men and transgenders have become more common in all these media in Thailand in recent years. However, to see these couples flirting, canoodling, kissing, sweet-talking, making grand promises, playing singing games, laughing together, touching and just being normal couples on stage, or in any other medium, is extremely rare. The "normal couple" things and the romantic stuff are mostly reserved for heterosexual relationships.
Another interesting choice by Parida is to make Jay Ann the true nang-ek (leading lady). Sassy, large, middle-aged and transgender unlike your typical image of a leading lady, Jay Ann still has one distinct nang-ek behaviour: she sacrifices the man she loves for her best friend without ever revealing her feelings to anyone, and emerges triumphant.
Chuichai Saneha is not without minor flaws. The playwright seems a tad too timid to depict Manote as a sometimes-unlikeable person. Anon's storyline is also blurry, as if she feared to tackle the problems faced by young gay people today. And true to any Thai story, Chuichai Saneha couldn't help but be didactic. To be fair, however, Parida's touch is very subtle by Thai standards.
Music figures strongly in this production. The famous 60s tune, Saneha (Passion) penned by Manas Pitisan defines the sorrowful mood of the play, which is briefly brightened by popular 80s love songs sung by Jakkrit and Wat during their favourite guessing game.
Music director Sinnapa Sarasas adapts Saneha, along with some traditional Thai music to fit the piano and the guitar, giving them a rich, voluptuous tone. And Sanchai, with his lush voice that rings like a large temple bell, gives these songs a quality both haunting and poignant. Bhanbhassa extracted nuanced and subtle performances from her stellar cast. Pramote Sangsorn is touching as a green and devoted working-class man, while Bandit, whom I had only seen in movement-based performances, gives a beautifully understated interpretation of the sorrowful Manote. Thanyarat is another standout. Anong is probably the most complex character in the play, and the young actress brilliantly teeters between hateful and pitiful, fortitude and collapse.
Chuichai Saneha continues its extended run on July 30th and August 6th at 8pm, at Democrazy Theatre Studio.
Tickets, priced at 550 baht, are sold out, but try the waiting list.
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About the author
- Writer: Amitha Amranand