The Artists Repertory Theatre (ART)'s Second Stage is in only its second season, but the space is already defined by a series of edgy, engaging works. Their inaugural production, Bug, was a paranoid, claustrophobic hallucination of a play, while last spring's Assassins gave musical theater (and the American dream) a sinister twist.
Mr. Marmalade is a perfect selection for the stage, and I have to assume that director Jon Kretzu had fun with this one: The ensemble is brilliant, Van McQueen and Jeff Forbes (set and light design, respectively) deliver a cracked-out visual aesthetic—and most of all, the script is freaking awesome. Psychologically disturbing, malicious, hilarious... Marmalade is damn good stuff, and Kretzu does right by the script.
Lucy (Laura Faye Smith) is a four-year-old girl trapped in an abusive relationship with her imaginary friend. "Mr. Marmalade" (Tim True) lies, breaks play dates, and blows coke off the playroom table. When Lucy gets a crush on Larry (Chase Stoeger), the suicidal boy next door (in one very funny scene, she teaches him to play "doctor"), Mr. Marmalade tries to clean up and win back her affection. When he eventually relapses, Lucy's imaginary life takes a turn for the horrific.
Lucy is a cleverly written character: The play takes place in her world, and she is an articulate, fully realized character, but she is also very much a child. With so many adult influences showing up in her imaginary world, it's impossible not to wonder where she learned about cocaine, and "playing doctor." One suspects that her absent father, unstable mother, and her mother's string of boyfriends might have something to do with it.
Laura Faye Smith, as Lucy, does a great job capturing the feeling of being a child: You're small, and the world doesn't take you very seriously, but you don't feel small, and you have a fully realized inner life just like anyone else. Smith illustrates this beautifully. We can tell that Lucy is a child by the decorations in her playroom, her tutu, and the way she ever so carefully pronounces unfamiliar words. But in Smith's note-perfect interpretation of the character, Lucy takes herself completely seriously, and so do we. It's a remarkable performance: Smith carries the production, and she makes it look easy.
Another stellar performance comes from Michael Mendelson as Bradley, Marmalade's graceful, long-suffering personal assistant. I would like to propose that somebody start a Michael Mendelson Fan Club: This man is always such a pleasure to watch, whether he's playing a Spanish warlord or a gay stepdad. I hope he stays in Portland forever. Here, he adds comforting warmth to the production as the only adult character (albeit an imaginary one) who isn't a total douchebag. Bradley and Lucy air kiss and enjoy tea parties, and it's reassuring to know that Lucy is capable of imagining someone so kind.
As Mr. Marmalade, Tim True does nice work as an abusive, perennially fucked-up figment of Lucy's imagination. He's a big, blustery man, by turns likeable and frightening, who doesn't shy from the awkwardness of asking a four-year-old if she wants to play doctor.
Chase Stoeger as the depressed toddler Larry is the ensemble's only weak link; he's adorably downtrodden in his hoodie and Eeyore shirt, and he does a cute little kid schtick, but he never seems like anything but an adult impersonating a child. His scenes suffer from his inability to really inhabit his character, especially compared to the gravitas with which Smith endows Lucy. In Stoeger's defense, the character is bizarrely written: Larry is a depressed kleptomaniac who was held back in preschool for trying to kill himself. How you make that work, I don't know—unfortunately, neither does Stoeger.
The set design on this production is both whimsical and effective: The whole piece is set in Lucy's playroom, where high walls and an oversized stairway make the fully grown Laura Faye Smith seem improbably tiny. During the second act, a wonderful set-within-a-set device takes us completely inside Lucy's fantasy world. The lighting is by turns sunny and stark; even the annoying kiddie music playing during intermission gets the job done.
If you're one of those people who "keeps meaning to go to the theater," Mr. Marmalade would be great place to start. When ART is on their game, they produce some of the best theater in town, and with this twisted production, the game is most definitely on.