With a sweet name like Mr. Marmalade, this dashing, clean-cut fellow would make the perfect imaginary friend for a young girl.
Or would, at least, if the impressionable 4-year-old Lucy (Erin Scarberry) didn't have a distracted mother, unadulterated access to cable television, and a too-mature babysitter who abandons her post for rough sex.
Without a fixed star to hitch her wagon to, Lucy fixes her fancy to the black hole that is Mr. Marmalade (Starr Hardgrove), who fails to live up to his own sweet name. After all, how can he, a product of Lucy's own mind, do anything but fail when only images of failure and dissolution surround her?
Mr. Marmalade, a dark comedy co-directed by Cassie Hollis and Starr Hardgrove, satirizes the societal norms which permit a girl as young as four to encourage psychological abuse of herself.
The play's action unfolds in Lucy's living room, which also functions as dining room, rumpus room and bedroom. Hers is a small house, and, by necessity, functions appropriate only for other rooms to bleed into this space. This arrangement is the audience's first introduction to the play's primary theme: the postmodern, permeable boundary between work and play, between adulthood and childhood, between reality and fantasy.
The plebeian squalor of Lucy's scattered playthings and the worn furniture anchor the play in reality, but the painting that hangs (or rather floats, suspended by fishing line) upstage segregates this space from pure realism. It depicts a cartoon-strip thought bubble, and thus simultaneously illustrates and demonstrates this space's annexation to fantasy.
Two equally abstract doorways bookend the room, so stylized that they appear to have been trimmed from bright sheets of construction paper. However, there's something sinister about the angles and asymmetry of those doorways that puts one in mind of Tim Burton's set designs, especially Beetlejuice. Indeed, that grotesque character of Michael Keaton's would find he has much in common with Mr. Marmalade, namely a chauvinistic, ravenous demeanor and a talent for deceit.
Mr. Marmalade arrives for playtime with a suitcase, grumbling. Lucy convinces him to play house with her, and he plays a grumpy, distracted husband to her attentive, chipper wife. After mere moments, he drops the act and cooks up an excuse about how busy he is at work, leaving her alone again.
Lucy has not had a stable home life, nor has one been represented for her on television, so it is fitting that her imaginary friend cannot even pretend to be an attentive husband, let alone actually be a loyal playmate.
Bradley (Rob Harris), on the other hand, represents the yin to Marmalade's yang. Harris plays Bradley almost as a eunuch, or at least as asexual: a strong choice given the play's resolution.
Bradley is imaginary too, but he's not her imaginary friend. He's really more of a liaison between Lucy and Mr. Marmalade. It's ironic that he's much friendlier with Lucy than Mr. Marmalade could ever be. He's much more responsible, too. He manages schedules, arranges brief playtimes and attempts to hide from her his superior's dark side.
He cannot keep it from her for long. He is, after all, her own invention. She tugs off his sunglasses to reveal his black eye, which Mr. Marmalade has given him in a fit of pique.
In the midst of this troubled playtime, reality intrudes. Lucy's mother (Brenda Harris) tells her she's going out for the night, and that her usual babysitter, Emily (Kaycee Johnson), will be watching her for the rest of the evening. Lucy protests, but by the next scene Emily has already settled in.
Even though Emily takes great pains to appear older than she is by smoking, by affecting an apathetic/pessimistic attitude and by dating older men, she is little more than a child herself. She likes to pretend, too, and enjoys doing so with Lucy despite herself.
However, once Emily's boyfriend George (Jason Watts) arrives in expectation of a sexual encounter, which he quickly receives from her, loneliness threatens Lucy once again.
Luckily for her, George has brought his 5-year-old brother Larry (Joe Gomez). It is in this equally troubled youngster (who has recently been declared the state's youngest suicide survivor) that Lucy discovers the possibility of lasting, age-appropriate companionship.
It is also in her interactions with Larry that Lucy unintentionally reveals the possibility that she has been sexually abused in her past. Within moments of meeting him, she engages him in a game of doctor, and implores him to inspect her "head to toe" as the scene fades to black. The lights come up again on the two in a (presumably) post-coital embrace.
Later in the play, Mr. Marmalade taunts her with the possibility that he can play doctor with her, too, and therefore may have done so in the past.
Preoccupation with sex at such a young age can be a clinical indicator of sexual abuse. Mr. Marmalade's further physical and psychological abuse of Lucy drives this supposition home.
It would be too disturbing to watch a 4-year-old abused in this manner during a comedy, even a dark one. Therefore it is cold but perhaps calculated comfort that neither Scarberry nor Gomez play a 4-year-old with a high degree of accuracy. Textually, they cannot. The writer Noah Haidle has these children speaking about concepts in ways beyond the grasp of any 4-year-old.
Instead, the actors approach their characters with a degree of stylization. Scarberry pitches her voice high, ramps up her physical energy and adopts a few key child-like mannerisms such as foot-stomping. These choices suffice. She does not approach Lucy with the acumen of a realistic, representational actor; to do so would be inappropriate for the role.
Gomez, who plays a more sullen youth, eschews the typical high energy and pitch of a child for a deep chest voice and drooping, gangly limbs. Once Lucy has broken through his wall, he allows her enthusiasm to lift up his posture and tempo; his voice remains low. Choosing a higher resonance placement would facilitate the audience's perception of Larry as a 5-year-old boy upon his first entrance. Until he tells Lucy he's five, his low voice obscures his age, and causes confusion. Then again, the dark subject matter favors actors who approach these characters not as children but as child-like fictions.
The Best Medicine
After all, Mr. Marmalade is billed as a dark comedy, and to laugh at children portrayed realistically in these situations would seem monstrous. Instead, much of this laughter turns out to be medicinal, relieving the stress inflicted by moral discomfort. The play progresses against a backdrop of potential abuse punctuated by moments of actual abuse. Lucy's living room is such a liminal space that everything which unfolds within it becomes a part of a greater mosaic of corruption and innocence.
Different situations elicit different kinds of laughter. Before the game of doctor with Larry becomes sexual, Lucy borrows his electric toothbrush to make an "incision" on his chest. Scarberry and Gomez play the scene with relish. It's an endearing moment. Afterward, when Lucy demands he remove his pants, and when she plunges her hand down his tighty-whiteys and orders him to cough, the comedic image which results stands in stark contrast to the silly "surgery."
A few moments seem unclear as to which kind of laughter they are designed to generate, such as when Mr. Marmalade shakes an accusatory dildo at Lucy, or, later, when he sprays her with beer. These are disturbing moments, and it seems insufficient to play them for a cheap laugh.
However, this production never invites audiences to laugh at the various abuses inflicted against Lucy, but instead at the society that has allowed the degradation thatsurrounds and shapes her. This mocking laughter chisels and rips at the monuments Americans have built in homage of children's exploitation. Though it addresses immorality and irresponsibility, Mr. Marmalade is neither immoral nor irresponsible.
Mr. Marmalade plays at the Nightingale Theater, 1416 E. 4th St., courtesy of EvanDrake Productions, March 27-29 at 8pm. It is intended for mature audiences only. Tickets are $10. For more information call 633-8666.
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