Thirtysomething American playwright Noah Haidle is known for his “strange and off-kilter” plays. Outside The March Theatre Company is remounting Haidle’s Mr. Marmalade, a huge hit at last year’s SummerWorks. And what’s the play like? Not surprisingly, strange and off-kilter. But it is also dark, disturbing, provocative, poignant and satiric.
OtM has set the play in a kindergarten classroom – a real one – in fact two adjoining real ones at Parkdale’s Holy Family Catholic School. (The name of the school is a howler in light of the play’s subject matter.) As site specific theatre goes, this production of Haidle’s 2006 hit is clever, cheeky and arch. Haidle’s premise is a mix of a child’s imagination layered with real adult life. The two themes are inseparable. It is like watching the future and the past at the same time. By looking at a four year old who talks like an adult, we see what traumatic events might shape the woman she will become. Confusing? Not really, because once the audience has grasped the idea that timelines are completely blurred, one can come to grips with Haidle’s disquieting themes.
The Guide (Julie Tepperman) is the saccharine narrator who treats the audience like we are at the boy’s and girl’s library during story time. What is particularly amusing is that the various chapter headings of her storybook sound like Henry Fielding, with long descriptions of the events that the chapter includes. The storybook, in other words, is modeled after 18th century novels.
Lucy (Amy Keating) is four years old. She has an imaginary friend called Mr. Marmalade. Her mother and babysitter (both played by Katherine Cullen) acknowledge that Mr. Marmalade exists, ostensibly to appease the little girl. Mr. Marmalade (Philip Riccio), however, is not a benevolent invisible friend. He is a tycoon businessman, always flying hither and yon, who expects his little dollybird to be waiting at his beck and call. There is also the shadowy figure of Bradley (Sebastien Heins) who is Mr. Marmalade’s creepy personal assistant. It’s a strained relationship at best between Lucy and the man she calls her husband.
When Lucy meets a real life little boy of five called Larry (Ishai Buchbinder), the brother of her babysitter’s boyfriend (Jason Chinn), they play dangerous games together like doctor. Lucy, in fact, reaches down into Larry’s briefs to feel his privates. It doesn’t help matters that Larry is the youngest attempted suicide in New Jersey history. Mr. Marmalade does not take kindly to the fact that his rival is a “toddler”, and his relationship with Lucy tanks.
As the story unfolds, the Guide leads us to the various parts of the kindergartens where the scenes are set. It’s hard to know what is real in the rooms (left over the summer by the teachers), and what has been embellished by designer Jon Grosz (with Dana Buchbinder and Chloe Cushman being given credit for classroom décor and illustrations respectively.) While there are some adult chairs, the bulk of the audience sits on the kiddie chairs at their little tables. This environment augments the play’s adult/child merger – big bodies in tiny seats.
Director Mitchell Cushman understands that the playwright is playing a provocative game. We are seeing both the child and her possible grown up life simultaneously. The seeds are there – Lucy’s slutty, indifferent mother, the implied sexual and physical abuse Lucy has suffered, the cruelty of the teasing babysitter – for the little girl to grow up into a murderer. In the very first scene, for example, we see Lucy repeatedly make the Ken doll bash Barbie. It can only go down hill from here.
Cushman has cleverly walked the fine line of sarcasm. Lucy and Larry are earnest in their innocence, while the adults are manipulative and menacing. We laugh at the antics of Lucy and her Mr. Marmalade because Haidle’s dialogue is rich in double entendres. Lucy talking like an adult is very funny, particularly when she resorts to four-year-old isms, such as “But I can’t read”. Director Cushman gets his laughs, but he is very careful to make his actors highlight the moments of excruciating tension. When Mr. Marmalade comes back after Bradley has caught Lucy and Larry together, he is positively terrifying in his cold and quiet anger. In other words, Cushman has great skill in getting his actors to play the moment.
Which brings us to the actors. The stand-out is the charismatic Riccio who can play any kind of character at the drop of a hat, which ensures his Mr. Marmalade goes through many moods, such as kindly suitor, slimy seducer, and tyrannical overlord. He is also sexy and scary. Keating keeps Lucy on message – a little bewildered girl trying to cope with the adult world. She never loses her simplicity and directness. Buchbinder is perfection as the nebbish Larry – a human beanpole who’s as fragile as a feather. Heins’ Bradley is very complex, because the actor conveys a layered character. Totally subservient when Mr. Marmalade wants him, Heins also shows a more predatory attitude when he is around Lucy. Is he going to take over from Mr. Marmalade?
Haidle is growing in reputation, and capturing such a hot playwright is a feather in the cap of OtM. Their mandate seems to be theatre on the edge. For example, their production of Mike Daisey’s controversial The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs was a giant hit this past season. Next up is Terminus by Irish shockmeister Mark O’Rowe at SummerWorks.
So let all the blessings rain down upon this company and their plays in found spaces. Long may they be a socio/political gadfly on the Toronto cultural scene.
Noah Haidle’s Mr. Marmalade, (starring Amy Keating, Philip Riccio, Ishai Buchbinder, Sebastien Heins, Katherine Cullen, Jason Chinn and Julie Tepperman, directed by Mitchell Cushman), Holy Family Catholic School, Jul. 16 to 28, 2012