Justin Doran in Mr. Marmalade
Photo by Bruce Bennett
Sitting through Noah Haidle's Mr. Marmalade this weekend brought me back to an experience I had in that very same theater some years ago when I took a field trip with a bunch of women and their children to see The Little Match Girl. Things start out pretty bad and get worse. Seeing horrible things happen to a child was too much to bear for the mini-vaned set and they ranted and raged all the way home. Ladies, you haven't seen nothin' yet.
To label Haidle's play a dark comedy is an odd choice of words. It's a freight train to the shadow side; an event horizon comedy that crashes full steam ahead into two myths which we hold sacred: that children do not have sexual imaginations, and that innocence is reliable. Haidle doesn't just shatter these holy truths, he throws a full-blown party. And for the most part, it's a hot-button taboo pouncing blast.
The story involves Lucy, a four-year old going on 40. She's a latchkey kid with an open door policy when it comes to the people that she lets live in her head. Mom's busy deciding what mini-skirt to wear and generally ignoring her child's welfare. Mr. Marmalade is her imaginary friend, useful for playing doctor, house, and cappuccino party. He's a tall, dashing, demonic, GQ Wall Street type with no time for Lucy. He pencils her in for a 2:00 brunch on Sunday but don't hold him to it. His assistant, Bradley, plays the Sancho part, delivering messages and getting increasingly pummeled by Mr. M's offstage brutality. At one point Bradley crawls on stage, drenched in blood and bandages, to deliver his master's latest missive. Mr. M promises Lucy a trip to Mexico too. Lucy, tired of being put off my her unreliable figment, goes off to play with a real kid, Larry, the five-year old suicide survivor next door. Mr. M gets jealous, threatens to rape Lucy when Larry enters to save the day. Haidle stuffs bucket loads of nastiness in his play. Bring 'em on is the spirit. Mr. M. has a coke problem, and later on a drinking one. Come to think of it, he is the problem adult to Lucy's problem child. God forbid such a horror would be dished up by pre-schooler.
The imagination is largely a feral and unruly place, free of morality, sense, and logic. You are not the boss of your unconscious. Haidle gets that part right. You only need to look to your last dream for evidence. As for what a four-year old is capable of imagining—it's best not to get too Piageted out here. It's a play, not psych 101. Still, there's little doubt that a child's imagination contains more than gum drops and velvet bunnies. Read William Golding's Lord of the Fies or watch Peter Weirs' Picnic at Hanging Rock. Who among us has not been creeped out by a kid? As for the sexualization of children, well all you need to do is check out the toy rack in your local Walmart to view the hooker dolls meant for tweens to see what's happening on that front. Or consider Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, still banned on some parts of the planet.
The cast sinks their teeth into this absurd world with whole-hearted bravado. Mikelle Johnson captures the not quite in control of her body quality of a child. She flaps and hops in her bizarre tutu, completely transparent with her emotional flux. But it's in her raspy Lauren Becall voice that she is most disarming. Justin Doran's larger than life presence animates Mr. M in bold strokes. Exuding a raw physicality and a sinister charm, Doran inhabits this one-dimensional character with a devilish glee. Erik Hellman's awkward and hopelessly lonely Larry is cute and sexy, and doesn't that just make us squirm. Glen Philip and Lisa Thomas play a variety of supporting roles with ample vigor. Philip Lehl's Bradly is the one calm balm to the mayhem, a kind of counterbalance of the imagination.
Alex Harvey's direction plays up the groundlessness of the territory, straddling the wobbly edge between what's left of reality and the imagined world. Kirk Markley's suburban living room and projected artifacts amplify the fractured surface of Haidle's twisted universe. Projections of a little girl jumping in slow motion add a nostalgic note, casting a spell which is most often broken with some unexpected nonsensical action. The second act drags a bit, going in too many directions at once that derail the steam roller of a first act. In general, Haidle's shock heavy play suffers from case of the everything but the kitchen sink syndrome. This is a nothing solved everything stirred event. Haidle leaves no map to the dark regions he drags the willing to. You are on your own, people.
That said, bravo to Stages for risking upsetting the ranks. We should all get riled up at least once a season, and this is as troubling a play as any to do just that. If you are prone to queasiness, locate the exits and request an aisle seat. The play is not for the righteous who expect moral lessons on the side, more for those that enjoy a good solid kick out of the ballpark coma of complacency. I suggest watching with the same advice that the legendary troublemaker of depth psychology James Hillman uses in looking at dreams. Get on the elevator and press the “down” button.
But hey, hold that call to your therapist, the play ends on a perky note. Mr. M cheerily commits
Seppuku donning a snazzy kimono, Larry shows up asking Lucy to play dodge ball. She says yes. Bradly cuddles in the easy chair and gets the last word, or song, When that I was and a little tiny boy, from Twelfth Night to be exact. The tea party has ended, go in peace, puzzlement, or seething anger, whichever is your pleasure. The lights dim on Lehl's sweet and haunting voice, innocence curiously intact.