A Child's Loss of Innocence Tastes Sour and Sweet in Mr. Marmalade
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A Child’s Loss of Innocence Tastes Sour and Sweet in Mr. Marmalade

The 2011 SummerWorks hit returns in a new location, and it's still weird, twisted, and great.

With imaginary friends like Mr. Marmalade (Philip Riccio, right), Lucy (Amy Keating, left) looks forward to a life of therapy. Photo by Shira Leuchter.

Mr. Marmalade
Holy Family Catholic School (141 Close Avenue)
July 16–28, 7:30 p.m. (no performance on Sunday)
$20, $10 under-30 special on Mondays and Wednesdays

On our more stressful days, we yearn for a time machine to take us back to our early years—to the cornucopia of toys and games at our fingertips, to nap time, to when adults read to us, and everything was a bit simpler. That’s because we, thankfully, aren’t the young characters in Noah Haidle’s twisted journey into the psyche of children who grow up too fast, Mr. Marmalade.

At first glance, Lucy (Amy Keating) is a typical blonde, bubbly, and pig-tailed 4-year-old in a pink, poofy dress with an explosive imagination. However, Lucy is caught up in her own demented version of the game “House,” in which her imaginary friend Mr. Marmalade (Philip Riccio) squeezes in tea time in between power meetings at the office, is verbally, emotionally (and eventually physically) abusive, with a shine for alcohol and nose candy. The real adults in her life ignore her, but one night, while her mother is on a date and her babysitter is off with her boyfriend, Lucy meets fellow troubled toddler, Larry (Ishai Buchbinder), who shows her that there could be value in real-life relationships as well. With the help of a sweetly omniscient guide (Julie Tepperman) breaking the story into chapters, the audience literally follows Lucy around the kindergarten classroom of Parkdale’s Holy Family Catholic School as her real and imaginary worlds collide in a downward spiral, twist after twist, until the (thankfully) hopeful conclusion. It may take place in a kid’s classroom, but this is not a family show.

Audiences that missed Mr. Marmalade‘s sold-out run at last year’s SummerWorks Festival have another chance to see the magical staging that won director Mitchell Cushman the Emerging Artist Award, and a mostly returning cast (the only new performers are Riccio and Tepperman, who take the show in a slightly darker direction) who won for Outstanding Ensemble. And it’s a good thing, too—Mr. Marmalade is the rare combination of a challenging script, talented performers, and clever direction from an emerging indie theatre company that shouldn’t be missed.

Keating, again, plays Lucy as a woman-child wise beyond her years with a crippling lack of role models or self-confidence (when it comes to romance), and Buchbinder is awkwardly tragic as Larry, burdened by the world’s woes at 5 years old. Between their performances and their eerily youthful looks, their not-so-innocent game of “Doctor” had the audience cringing. They effectively translate their characters’ odd blend of childhood innocence and adult sexuality and guilt.

Philip Riccio, replacing David Storch as the title character, is a younger, edgier, sexier Marmalade, which makes Lucy’s infatuation with him all the more believable, and his moods all the more dangerous. Tepperman, while sweet and smooth in her voice, can give an all-knowing smirk that ejects the audience from our comfort zones once again.

The only area we wish was further explored was the role of Lucy’s mother (Katherine Cullen), played as a kind, bawdy, and neglectful bombshell. As the main female role model for Lucy, a more realistic portrayal of her mother’s own problems with self-confidence, intimacy, and romance would make our predictions for Lucy’s future more dire.

But the real star in this production is the site-specific setting, for which Cushman is developing a bit of a reputation. Every inch of the classroom is used to embellish the sense of magic in the script, where imaginary characters appear and disappear out of thin air. It also instantly reminds us of our own carefree kindergarten days, and how different they were compared to Lucy and Larry’s.

A warning though, it can get mighty hot. And since you can only stoop to toddler-sized water fountains for so long, come prepared. There are more then enough reasons to catch this remount while you can.