Mr. Marmalade (by Noah Haidle) is a play about children. But it is not a play for children, kindergarten classroom setting and free juice boxes notwithstanding.
Lucy has an imaginary friend, Mr. Marmalade, with whom she plays an
increasingly disturbing game of house- when he can fit her in to his
schedule, that is. Lucy’s world is one of loneliness and loss, and this
is channeled into the neglect, insult and injury she imagines Mr. Marmalade
perpetrating. Mr. Marmalade justifies its seemingly wanton abuse of a
four-year-old when it grounds itself in reality, making us understand
that the imaginary friends are rooted in twisted recreations of scenes
from the world that Lucy has experienced and continues to experience at
the hands of her irresponsible mother and absentee father.
The most important aspect of this production by Outside the March theatre is its site-specific nature; the audience is led back and forth between two sides of a large kindergarten classroom at Holy Family Catholic school. There are all sorts of Easter eggs in the décor, so make sure you read everything on the walls, as there’s no way some of the vocabulary words and pictures are from a Catholic kindergarten! Most of what we see turns out to be relevant to plot or theme, amazing when the place is as busy as an actual kindergarten. The direction by Mitchell Cushman is full of wonderful surprises; actors pop out from where you least expect them to, the action sometimes continues outside. (An actor managed to pop out from right behind me and I had no idea how he got there.) The whole thing is stuffed with wonderful visual treats. Kindergarten things are used to stand in for adult objects in hilarious ways, and the temptation to play is strong (and largely encouraged, if it’s not disruptive). The audience finds new and interesting ways to settle itself as the actors perform scenes around and through it. If you sit down, you may find yourself next to a scene or have to move out of the middle of it. Scenes are introduced via storybook by our guide, Julie Tepperman, who helps us follow the action.
Lucy isn’t the only one having a bad time. When her mother leaves her to wait for the babysitter, the vacant teen’s boyfriend brings his brother, a suicidal toddler. The more experienced beyond their years and disconnected these children are, the less they seem to want to live in a world full of pain and loneliness. For children, historically and throughout literature, the only escape available is the imagination, but even that seems to be out to get them.
This isn’t to say that Mr. Marmalade is a miserable play. It’s funny and adorable; it just happens to be immensely disturbing. The humour comes with the juxtaposition between childhood innocence and the adult world of an imaginary friend who has not only a personal assistant, but a taste for alcohol and drugs. As the encounters get more and more harsh, the giggles give way to a much more difficult time, more so when Lucy’s emotional trauma becomes manifestly clear. We go from being engaged, to becoming more distant when things get truly appalling, to coming back again for the very human ending.
Mr. Marmalade is full of twists and turns, and has an ending much like the end of the last Lord of the Rings movie: there are at least three of them. You find yourself tricked by yet another conclusion. While this can be frustrating, it’s obvious from the message of the play that Lucy needs to free herself from all the trappings of adult life to really heal; she must get rid of all of her layers of playing doctor and house (though not Dr. House) so she can be a kid again.
Amy Keating, as Lucy, and Ishai Buchbinder, as fellow pre-grade-schooler Larry, do some excellent, believable work as small children at varying degrees of precociousness. They never stray into preciousness, but instead capture the amorphous, loose and slightly dangerous feeling of being a child.
Katherine Cullen does triple duty as mother, babysitter and imaginary friend, but does her best work as the bored teen. She manages to completely remove the giveaway light of thought behind her eyes, and is pitch-perfect in distraction and vocal inflection, particularly when she reluctantly pulls out a make-believe game from her past. Philip Riccio as Mr. Marmalade is a perfectly charming psychopath, a proto Patrick Bateman, and Sebastian Heins as his personal assistant Bradley gives us an “adult” we can actually root for, with a mix of damaged and effusive warmth. In a way, Bradley (and in particular his entrances and exits) reminds me very much of Angels In America’s Mr. Lies.
Costumes are particularly effective in accentuating character. Mr. Marmalade’s reformation from black suit to white becomes a white wifebeater – showing that costume colour isn’t everything; the change must come underneath, and it hasn’t. Lucy and Larry wear hilariously oversized “adult” clothes when “house” is played, emphasizing how young they are. Lucy wears too-big high heels and a “little black dress,” but leaves her pink poufy dress poking through; not only does it resemble a cottontail rabbit, but it shows how ill-fitting the role is (as do Larry’s clothes, which keep falling off). It also solves the problem of the dress suddenly revealing the actress as the woman she actually is. Sound design helps, too, by mostly using “instruments” found in a kindergarten classroom.
The room itself is not air-conditioned and is likely to get stifling hot. But, as the juice boxes come out and humour and sadness do a captivating square dance, you’re not likely to mind too much.