Uy Latavan has set herself no small task.
The theater director, staging a performance of the story of “Kakei” in musical theater yike on Sunday night in Phnom Penh, hopes to challenge the centuries-old notion that the protagonist is a “bad girl.”
People “believe that Kakei is unfaithful to her husband and a bad girl,” Ms. Latavan said.
While the 27 actors, dancers, singers and musicians will present the tale as it was written in the mid-19th century by Cambodia’s King Ang Duong, they plan to invite the audience to look at Kakei with fresh eyes, she said.
The story goes as follows: Kakei is a well-educated and beautiful young woman who was raised by a hermit and then married to a king. One day, the mythical bird Sdach Krut—known as Garuda in Hindu mythology—kidnaps her. Forced to live with him, Kakei eventually becomes fond of him.
But one of the king’s manservants, sent to find her, sees she is sharing Sdach Krut’s bed and, instead of rescuing her, threatens to tell the king unless she sleeps with him. Panicked, she agrees.
Kakei is eventually rejected by both Sdach Krut and the king who, in the presence of his concubines, sentences her to be tied to a raft and cast out at sea.
“Kakei is not bad and unfaithful to her husband. She’s a victim who has suffered injustice throughout her life,” Ms. Latavan said. “These three men…mistreated her terribly.”
Double standards abound in Cambodian society, she said, explaining that a man can always redeem himself and be forgiven if he commits bad deeds, but a woman cannot. And a woman divorced by her husband will carry the stigma.
Ms. Latavan is a career yike artist who started studying the Cambodian form of opera when she was 20, at the Royal University of Fine Arts in 1972. After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, she worked at the Culture Ministry, later teaching at the Secondary School of Fine Arts. She currently works in the ministry’s performing arts department.
Staging this play with her group, Yike Amatak, was challenging because many are not full-time artists. “Many work for private companies, banks or are civil servants,” she said.
But the group managed to coordinate rehearsals for the complex work, which was commissioned by the NGO Cambodian Living Arts (CLA), and staged at a festival in Kandal province in April. The play will be performed on Sunday at the CLA theater next to the National Museum.
“One of our aims is to help develop a local audience,” said Prim Phloeun, CLA’s executive director. Most of the Khmer music and dance performances at that theater are designed for foreign visitors, he said. “But we also feel that it’s important to continue to commission some of these great artists to collaborate together and perform for a Cambodian audience.”
Plus, this piece has a message that will hopefully prompt discussion, Mr. Phloeun added.
Playing the role of Kakei is complicated for 20-year-old Keo Sophanith, who is studying stage direction at the Royal University of Fine Arts.
She is uneasy about the audience’s reaction to her role. “I’m happy to play the role of Kakei, but I’m concerned what the outcome will be when the performance is over,” she said.
“Kakei is a beautiful woman, but very weak. And she easily falls into men’s trap by not using her brain,” she added. On the other hand, “she grew up with a hermit and has never been in the outside world.”
“Then the hermit just hands her over to the king, a person she expected would treat her well and be loyal to her love. But the king is not honest with her…. She just ends up with dishonest men who always put pressure on her.”
What Should It Be
What: “Kakei” presented in Khmer in musical theater yike
When: 6:30 p.m.Sunday
Where: Cambodian Living Arts theater, next to the National Museum, Street 13, Phnom Penh