The newest kid to hit Singapore's theatre block admittedly isn't (completely) a new one.
Purple is a small-scale play centring on the true story of Singaporean transsexual Maggie Lai, who recounts in several monologues her experiences in transforming from male to female.
First created and staged by Toy Factory Productions in 1995 and then in 1998 to small audiences at The Substation, its return this year, premièring on Thursday night at the Joyden Hall in Bugis+ was a highly-anticipated one.
Initially written and directed by Toy Factory's chief artistic director Goh Boon Teck, the play was handed over to Canadian-born director Rayann Condy, who took it on with a new look and angle, incorporating circus elements and a more colourful stage setting to the show.
Regrettably, though, I must admit that I failed to buy into lead actor Shane Mardjuki's performance as Maggie.
Because of the nature of the play -- a simple affair, with just four actors: Maggie and the three-nurse emsemble played by Elizabeth Loh, Rebecca Spykerman and Matilda Chua, limited props and mostly-bare sets -- it is all the more imperative that the dramatic performances in it shine through and pull their centre-stage weight.
Of course Maggie, in particular, who helms the entire show with her very compelling, painful, poignant and at times heart-warming story, must be performed to a T for the show to succeed.
But Mardjuki seemed to struggle to assume the femininity that his role required. Despite some commendable voice-changes between his own and other male personas, I find that I would have been more convinced if he was playing a cross-dresser.
His seductive dancing proved a little too awkward to be convincing, unfortunately, and his striptease movements looked a little too choreographed, and seemed to lack purpose. Though I was surprised to see him pull off the pole dance stunts.
Undoubtedly, Maggie's is a massively challenging role, in particular when taken on by a straight man. She was a man who wanted more than anything to be a woman and underwent the whole gamut of processes to get herself there -- from taking hormone injections over a four-year period before finally undergoing the $30,000 sex-change operation, which, the three nurse characters reveal, involves much more than simply the removal of one sex organ and cutting a hole for another.
Beyond changes to himself/herself, Maggie tells of the painful challenges she faced -- and continues to deal with -- from the outside world, from male lovers who use and abuse her for sex, to her frustration of not ever being able to function fully as a woman (due to her lack of the feminine reproductive system), and from being constantly judged and condemned by a conservative Singaporean society.
With all these physiological, psychological and emotional changes required to transform a man into a woman, it isn't difficult to imagine the mammoth task it must be for a straight man to fill himself with the psyche that Maggie must possess.
More time, research and practice is perhaps what Mardjuki needs to master her multi-faceted character as Maggie's life story goes beyond simply her gender transformation and encompasses various challenging occupations, including striptease and prostitution.
I wouldn't call Purple a total letdown, though. I thought the operation scenes were pretty well done, successfully irking and discomforting me in the way it was likely to have intended.
Loh, Spykerman and Chua took on the challenge of delivering in-your-face stark descriptions of every step of the sex-change process in rapid-fire succession, at the same time oozing blood from their hands with the right amount of menace and subtle fear and gag-inducing evil in their eyes.
The circus stunts woven into the show were fairly impressive, too -- Loh and Chua take on silks in a simple aerial dance, while Spykerman tries her hand at a suspended ring display -- strong efforts all in all, considering none of them were professionally circus-trained.
There are also certain moments I would give to Mardjuki, where it was probably easier for him to identify with Maggie -- the exploration of Maggie's relationship with her father, and his eventual acceptance of her, silicone implants and all, for instance -- a key part of the show that I reckon audiences can better identify with in their own way.
I also appreciated the slow, quiet moments, where Loh, Chua and Spykerman sang mellow classics like Little Girl Blue and I am Woman -- those added a touch of poignancy to what Maggie was going through, and gave me a moment to reflect on the reality of the challenges transsexuals face in Singapore, or most conservative societies that have yet to accept them as equals.
Purple awakened my consciousness about the real, unsolvable difficulties that transsexuals grapple with every day of their lives.
It's true that Purple may not be sufficiently polished, and I find myself unable to laud it as an overwhelming theatrical success, but I would nonetheless still recommend that you watch it -- you'll need to be over 18, though -- if just to really challenge yourself and your preconceptions about the transsexual community, in the way that the show did for me.
Purple is now showing at the Joyden Hall at Bugis+ until 18 August. For more details and to purchase tickets, please click here.