By Ben L.
17 years ago, local playwright Goh Boon Teck read an article in a magazine about a transsexual and could not stop crying. Fortunately enough, he was still able to contain his emotions and write a play based on the story, one that takes audiences on an emotional journey of self-discovery, love and courage.
Come August 2, that play will make a comeback after two phenomenal showings in 1995 and 1998. Purple marks its return with an updated script and an entirely new cast, under the supervision of a new director as well. Opting to take a backseat as creative director and set designer, Goh instead chose Skinned Knee Productions’ Rayann Condy to direct this modern version of his play, which also marks the first time Purple is directed by a woman. This move brings a multitude of changes to the stage, the most distinct being the addition of ‘circus-themed elements’ designed to further illustrate the objectification of the transsexual character.
Taking centre stage as protagonist Maggie Lai is Shane Mardjuki, a local television host and actor who has also starred in a couple of theatre performances including The Office Party, the award-winning What The Butler Saw and more recently, Twelfth Night. Interestingly, Shane is no stranger to playing the role of a woman, his previous attempt dating back to 2010’s The Vlee Conference. This time round however, Shane will face an even tougher challenge playing a man who wants to be a woman. Purple centers around Maggie’s journey as a hairdresser, masseuse, transvestite, transsexual, stripper, prostitute and movie star, and the challenges society poses, while earning the love and acceptance from her father.
Joining Maggie in his/her life-changing transformation is the trio of nurses played by Elizabeth Loh, Rebecca Spykerman and Matilda Chua. Incidentally, this is the second time Shane and Rebecca have performed together on stage, their previous encounter being Twelfth Night where the actress had also done her bit of cross-dressing for her male alter-ego role Cesario. With just a couple of days to Purple‘s opening show, both actors took time off their busy rehearsal schedules to share their on-stage experiences as well as their own thoughts regarding this year’s iteration of the 17-year-old play.
Shane, describe to us what kind of person Maggie is and how you felt playing the character.
Shane: Maggie is resilient, courageous and endearing! She is a colourful person with different sides to her too – loud and brash at one point, and quiet and reflective at another. To play and understand Maggie and to be a reflection of her in itself is challenging yet a privilege.
What went through your mind when you were initially called to play the role of Maggie?
Shane: Will I have to shave my legs for this?
Rebecca, if you were really put in the position to aid in a patient’s life-changing decision as monumental as Maggie’s, how would you feel?
Rebecca: I’d probably feel overwhelmed, willing to support and anxious all at the same time. It is still a very personal experience as I’ve learnt from Purple.
Singapore in 1995 and 1998 was a totally different society. What is the magic of this year’s adaptation?
Shane: We feel that society has developed and we have grown to be more receptive to the idea that transgender do exist but we may not necessarily be more accepting. Similar to the previous two stagings, we still hope to educate audiences through the life of Maggie Lai that transsexuals, like everyone else, deserve a place in society and should not be marginalized just because they are different physically.
Working with Rayann Condy has been …..
Rebecca: I am very grateful to Rayann for creating an environment where I feel so comfortable to really give opinions and ideas during our improvise sessions. That is so important for an actor I feel. I also appreciate how she is so open and compassionate as a person and a director. Super win.
Shane: Rayann is fantastic! She is a very supportive director and she lets you come up with decisions and ideas together with her. It’s a very exciting and dynamic working environment. She makes you feel safe enough to explore ideas and she is great at cultivating a very supportive atmosphere in the rehearsal room. Plus she only hits us if we are really, really naughty. Help me.
One new addition to this year’s adaptation of PURPLE is the circus elements. Tell us how this fits in with the play’s theme, and any challenges faced training for the stunts, or memorable incidents during practice.
Shane: The introduction of circus elements is a directive that came from Rayann. She envisioned the circus setting as it is not only fun for the audience but it is also a reflection of the way Maggie was treated by the nurses and the society, as if she was an animal or freak show on display.
Rebecca: Circus training was a challenge for me. It was really mind over matter. I hung upside down on the aerial hoop, did not grip it tight enough with my knees and I just dropped head first onto the floor and had the expression of an owl because I did not expect that coming.
Shane: I fell on my head while pole dancing. I tried my best to make it look sexy but really, slamming your head into the floor is just not that hot.
You guys have worked together once on Twelfth Night. What’s it like to be collaborating again?
Rebecca: It is definitely interesting getting to know each other better through these two projects! It is comforting working with people you already know as the working relationship and chemistry has been established.
Shane: Here is some interesting trivia for you: Becky is stalking me. The only reason she is an actor is because she is trying to get into my pants. I am just waiting for her to boil my pet rabbit.
Rebecca, this is the third time we’ll be seeing you on stage this year. Of the three productions, which has been your most favourite, and also the most challenging?
Rebecca: Spring Awakening stays very close to my heart; it was extremely special to me – the story, the message, the cast & director, the experience, every single thing about it. The most challenging was doing Twelfth Night – it was my first lead role and posed many challenges for me but I grew immensely from it. I’d do it again in a heartbeat. As for Purple, the journey of the project does not end until the last show has finished but it has surprised me with the lessons I’ve been learning from it.
PURPLE also places a strong focus on parental love. Share with us your own relationships with your parents, and how they have had an impact on who you are today.
Shane: I have an awesome relationship with my parents. They are fully supportive of what I do and for that, I am really blessed. My dad is pretty old-school and not too liberal about certain things regarding sexuality. BUT he went to get tickets to a screening of a film in which I had a bedroom scene with another man. What he did just showed me his support and love for me and gave me the courage to pursue the things I love such as theatre.
Rebecca: I am very blessed to have my parents. They initially thought that my desire to be a “star” was just a phase, but they supported what I did (no choice also, I die die didn’t want to give up on this “phase”)! My mom is very hardworking, street smart and a survivor. She inspires me with her huge sense of light-hearted humor and warm love – she is always laughing all the time and you’ll enjoy her infectious “cackle”. I look up to my dad a lot. He is not my biological father but his undying love of raising me since I was born blows me away. It’s common these days to see Caucasian parents raising Asian children, but my Dad’s special. He’s a hardworking, responsible and extremely committed Chinese man who has me – a curly haired Eurasian kid – as a daughter. I do not see him often because he’s been working overseas since I was a child but he is an AWESOME dad and I wouldn’t trade that off for anything.
Shane, who would you rather be, a man or woman?
Shane: OH MY GOD! A man! There is so much shaving, tweezing, colouring, shaping, styling, curling, straightening, etc, to be done as a woman. It is ridiculous! I have to get out of bed like half an hour earlier just to look presentable every day! I am looking forward to being a fuzzy slob (as is my usual state) once the production is over.
* A longer but filtered version of the interview will be published in The Nanyang Chronicle on Aug 13.
PURPLE will run from Aug 2 to 18 at The Joyden Hall, Bugis+ (formerly known as Iluma). Tickets available from SISTIC, more information at www.toyfactory.com.sg.