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Ivan Heng: 'I intend to age disgracefully'
IVAN Heng stares at some 20 women's shoes laid out before him. They range from silver stilettos to black strappy heels to midnight blue velvet pumps. The heels are on average three-inches high.
"They're all for me. I have to choose about a dozen of them to go with my costumes. And I have to act and dance in them. It's painful playing a woman ... But right after the shows, women come up to me with their daughters and say: 'We loved you.' And they turn to their daughters and say: 'You need to be more like Uncle Ivan.'"
In the weeks to come, Heng will be stepping into the corset, plumes and high hair of Zsa Zsa, the glamorous star attraction of a drag nightclub in the musical La Cage Aux Folles. The 1983 Broadway show has been adapted for the Singapore audience, transferring its original Saint Tropez setting to the picturesque shophouses of Tanjong Pagar.
Heng and Sean Ghazi play the nightclub star and host whose lives are thrown into a tailspin when their son decides to marry the daughter of a conservative politician. But Heng adds: "Before anyone gets their knickers in a twist, they should know that the musical defends heterosexual marriage! The gay couple wants their son to marry the girl of his dreams - even if that girl has a conservative father. Love is love!"
La Cage Aux Folles was staged by W!ld Rice five years ago. But it proved to be such a hit with audiences, the company is bringing it back, with Glen Goei once again directing and Heng playing Zsa Zsa. The script, according to Heng, has been further localised to be "completely Singaporean ... we want to do Broadway our way".
At 53, Heng is no stranger to drag roles. He's built a reputation as a versatile actor on top of his job as W!ld Rice's artistic director. And though he's taken on alpha-male roles in plays such as Huzir Sulaiman's The Weight Of Silk On Skin and Ibsen's Public Enemy, it is often his female impersonations - a centuries-old tradition in Asian and Western theatre - that get audiences in a tizzy.
"It's sensational. It's ironic. You get out there and the audience knows you're a man playing a woman. You create an instant, complicit bond with the audience ... And what's so interesting is that it's really a critique of gender as a social construct, gender as a prison.
"From a young age, you are told the ideal man has to be this, the ideal woman has to be that. But wouldn't it be a happier world if we can all be a bit playful and less hung-up about it? If we can just be our authentic selves and not trap ourselves inside these boxes of roles and expectations?"
In 1990, Heng created a national flutter when he played the beautiful transvestite spy in David Henry Hwang's M Butterfly, for which he had to drop his pants before the audience. In 1999, he became the first male actor to play Emily of Emerald Hill, lending unexpected camp and raunch to the uptight matriarch. Subsequently he was a ruthless tai tai in 2004's The Visit of the Tai Tai, and the uppity Lady Bracknell in 2009's The Importance of Being Earnest. They're all, one way or another, royal divas.
But it's perhaps the role of Zsa Zsa that lets Heng parade in one role all his gifts - for comedy, drama, camp, histrionics, deluxe glamour, manic singing and dancing, and personal advocacy. He notes: "When I played the role in 2012, I was 48. Since then, I've grown older, gotten married, and I have good friends dying. I understand more than ever the meaning of mortality. Life is short, transient, and you have to live and love as hard as you know how in every moment ... I intend to age disgracefully."
Heng admits he has more fun dressing up as a woman, simply because of the range and variety found in women's fashion. On average, he needs two-and-a-half hours getting ready to play a woman and just one hour to play a man.
But he adds: "The clothes, make-up, voice and gait are all part of the job of female impersonation. For me, merely impersonating a woman isn't enough. The act of cross-dressing must reveal character, and illuminate the problems and possibilities of gender. This is what makes it art."
For inspiration, Heng draws widely from female role models: "When I worked with the late director Krishen Jit in M Butterfly and Emily, he would say, in this scene you're more Joan Crawford, in this scene you're more Marlene Dietrich, in this scene you're more Anna May Wong ... But I also take inspiration from the women around me: my mother, sister and aunts, as well as socialites, civil servants and food-court aunties. They have all been references."
- La Cage Aux Folles runs at the Victoria Theatre from April 19 to May 13. Tickets on sale at Sistic