Thursday, October 10, 2013
Mr. Marmalade by Noah Haidle, Two Beards Theatre Company at the Salvage Vanguard, October 4 - 12, 2013
by Michael Meigs
On my way to Mr. Marmalade, the first production staged by the Two Beards Theatre Company, I was momentarily disconcerted to find the parking lot overflowing already at the Salvage Vanguard Theatre. Then I remembered that Trouble Puppet was doing Connor Hopkins' The Head at the same venue.
Mr. Marmalade occupied the small studio theatre just to the right of the entrance, and when they didn't find my name among the reservations, they asked which show I was going to. I confirmed that I wasn't aiming at Connor's eerie puppet adventure into the limbic system, so they happily sold me a $10 ticket to their own weird and wondrous world. I hit the 8 o'clock show -- good thing, too, because the 10 p.m. performance with the free beer was sold out, probably in part to the celebratory Trouble Puppet after-show crowd.
Noah Haidle's little fable about the four-year-old with some very strange imaginary friends is a young grownup's nightmare or perhaps an acid trip version of the awakening fantasy life of childhood. Big-eyed, expressive and vulnerable, Cassie Petersen as Lucy is onstage virtually every moment, and she embodies the cunning device of the work: her character is simultaneously a child and an aching, confused woman-child struggling to enter adulthood. Lucy's is a childhood without the grace of innocence. Grownups neglect and patronize her, and she knows entirely too much about the horrible side of human relationships. Petersen makes you want to give her a great big hug.
Lucy's single mother Sookie (Adriane Showne) leaves her alone at home, going off on a date before the babysitter arrives. Emily the babysitter (Kristi Brawner) has no patience for the very verbal Lucy and mocks her imaginary playmates. The peripheral adult males (Tim Stiefler) are callous, distracted and predatory, qualities directly reflected by Mr. Marmalade (David Nguyen as the distant imaginary father/lover figure, certainly the object of this desperately talkative four-year-old's Electra complex).
The child's only confidant is also imaginary -- gentle, mistreated Bradley (Ronnie Williams), the employee and personal assistant to the imperious Mr. Marmalade. Though they could hardly be more different in physical aspect, he and Lucy are alter egos. Bradley has the sweet nature and desire to please that one would expect of an unabused child. Williams plays the character with a light step and ardent attention to Lucy.
Into this messy, unhappy world comes Larry the preschooler (Johnny Bender), who's even more depressed and tormented than Lucy. She talks through her anxieties and expresses them in play; Larry has turned inward and bears bandaged wrists from a suicide attempt. Bender gives Larry intensity but also a perpetual air of surprise. Their brief but charming encounter falls apart, exposing both of them once more to the very grown-up miseries inflicted by others, both imaginary and real.
David Nguyen as Marmalade has a contained power and concentration that makes him all that more terrifying when he's angered. Playwright, director and actor give this character a sociopathic charm, rousing Lucy's hopes and dashing them, courting her and then spurning her, fathering a child and then rejecting it. One feels a profound satisfaction when he gets his come-uppance, which is both gruesome and hilarious, twice over.
Sounds like a downer, perhaps, but in fact it's anything but. Director Andrew Robinson and the cast take advantage of all the paradox and whimsey, moving the action quickly and taking advantage of Hadle's adroit manipulation of the contradictions of the apparently real and the apparently imagined. There are many amusements here, arising directly from the characters, and one of the biggest laughs of the show comes toward the end when Lucy declares adamantly to her mother, "I've had a very difficult evening!"
Sets are minimal, as they must be in a studio shared with many other activities. The cutaway door at the center seems unnecessary and a bit precarious. This tale is one of imagination, however, and Petersen's earnest, honest performance brings us effortlessly along with her without the need of external support.
The eponymous two beards are director Andrew Robinson and Jacob Henry, graduates of Texas A&M Corpus Christi. Their undertaking is at least the third theatre venture in Austin that seems to have had its origins down there on the coast. For that we're fortunate; and this first presentation of the beards promises additional satisfactions and delights.
Click to view program for Mr. Marmalade by Two Beards Theatre Company