Toy Factory’s latest English-language offering is the play Purple, which runs from August 2-18 at the Joyden Hall of Bugis + (former Bugis Illuma), and tells the true story of the transgendered Maggie Lai.
Mostly consisting of monologue material, Purple explores the burdened life of Maggie Lai (Shane Mardjuki) as she explains to us how she started off as a curious little boy, peeping at her male peers and even teachers as they urinated in the school bathrooms. Later, Lai would peddle herself as a prostitute, have a gender-altering operation, and leave for overseas where she would parade herself naked before people curious to see a transgendered woman, while all the time facing familial and societal objections – and in the end return to her father who then accepts her for who she is.
The story and script is a little underwhelming and uninspiring for about the first 20 minutes, but as the play goes on, the dialogue gets a lot more interesting and enticing as Maggie reveals more of her sordid life. What’s especially intriguing is that Maggie is by no means a saint; in fact, a lot of what she does in her life is pretty scandalous. Yet, Purple doesn’t make any apologies for the choices she makes. Maggie at no point shows any remorse about or resentment at her choices, and whether it is her choosing to be a prostitute or a stripper, Mardjuki delivers his dialogue matter-of-factly, just as the real Maggie would have talked about her past. One gets the feeling that Mardjuki’s Maggie is someone who tells of her past as it is, without regrets, and that seems to perfectly befit the real woman this story is based on.
Shane Mardjuki has the daunting task of carrying this play on his back, and whilst he’s ably supported by Matilda Chua, Elizabeth Loh, and Rebecca Spykerman who play different aspects of society and who see Lai as just a “creature”, this play rests solely on Mardjuki’s (all too manly) shoulders.
While Mardjuki goes back and forth, effectively changing voices and mannerisms, as he portrays Maggie as well as her father (along with other minor characters), and while he is androgynous and slender enough to play Maggie Lai, his naturally broad shoulders betray his performance at times. One such moment is when he’s performing the pole dance and his obvious male physique denies the audience the chance to completely believe it’s Maggie who’s dancing as a woman. Purple might just be a play where casting a person who has more effeminate (and therefore more convincing) physical attributes would have gone a long way in making the portrayal more believable. But of course, where can one find such a dramatic yet effeminate-looking actor on a tiny island with such a miniscule number of actors in the first place?
Having said that, Mardjuki plays Maggie Lai with just the right touch of emotion and pathos. The part of the monologue in which Mardjuki, as Maggie, talks about how her 80-year-old father accepts her back into the home, stands up to relatives who mock her, and shows his inner strength and love for her, is Mardjuki’s shining moment as he delivers the nuance and heart of the play directly to the audience.
Together with the three supporting actresses, who add appropriate symbolic essence to Purple (suitably conceived by director Rayann Condy), Mardjuki manages to showcase his Maggie Lai as a tortured soul who makes some questionable decisions, yearns for acceptance, and finally finds it in the arms of her father. It is to Mardjuki’s credit that the play’s intent to pull at the heartstrings is successful as he manages to deliver (and at times I suspect improvise) a mainly Singlish script, while efficaciously taking us on a journey of someone’s very unfair and immensely difficult life.
My only gripe with the play is with the seating arrangement. The built-in theatrical seating is furthest from the stage, and if you want to sit nearer, you have to bear the uncomfortable chairs that have been added to the space. Also the stage is in the middle, and while the actors take turns moving around, you don’t always see the action you are meant to view.
However, all in all, Purple is a play with a lot of heart and emotion, and considering it is in the very unnerving style of monologue, on an almost bare stage, Mardjuki does an outstanding job at keeping our attention on the story. Even when his body belies him, Mardjuki finds the voice, gestures and expressions to continue as Maggie and in the process makes Purple a penetratingly insighful piece of theatre.