Jay Clift and Christine Quintana in Mr. Marmalade. Photo by BeattyOei Photography.
Jay Clift and Christine Quintana in Mr. Marmalade. Photo by BeattyOei Photography.

There are some really smart choices being made in Mr. Marmalade that makes for a very satisfying evening of theatre; especially if you like your comedy dark and your tea of the Darjeeling oolong variety.

[pullquote]Christine Quintana’s performance as Lucy is simply her best work to date, managing to channel her inner child without devolving into what could have easily been an irritating adult impersonation. [/pullquote]In playwright Noah Haidle’s clever script, we meet four-year old Lucy who, like most kids her age, has imaginary tea parties with her imaginary friend Mr. Marmalde.  But don’t let his cutesy sounding name fool you, because Mr. Marmalade isn’t some adorable stuffed bear, but a middle-aged businessman with a cocaine problem.

It is pretty obvious that Lucy’s choice in imaginary friends comes from her observations of real life, but through her four-year old lens:  “Why don’t you touch me anymore? You haven’t touched me in weeks” she yells at Mr. Marmalade before making him pinky swear that he hasn’t been cheating on her.

Haidle spends little time giving us any clues to Lucy’s rather adult behaviour, and that is a bonus.  While we get glimpses of how Lucy sees her imaginary world through what is happening around her in real-life, the playwright leaves us to go to many of Lucy’s darker places on our own.  By refusing to spoon-feed us Lucy’s disturbing reality, Haidle lets our own imaginations fill in the blanks with images that are probably far scarier than any he could ever conjure, or conversely, it allows us to stay within our comfort zone.

That isn’t to say we don’t see Lucy’s process; in one particularly clever scene Haidle demonstrates how Lucy pulls what she learns in the real world into her imaginary one by imitating a conversation with her babysitter.

Playing children, or in this case both children and adults through the eyes of a child, can be a tough for any actor, as the portrayal often gets pushed too far into childish and is never quite believable.  Here though, the cast walks that fine line with incredible skill.

Christine Quintana’s performance as Lucy is simply her best work to date, managing to channel her inner child without devolving into what could have been an irritating adult impersonation; there is just enough hint of a child here to allow the audience to fill in the rest.  Quintana’s portrayal is doubly satisfying as it also effectively captures the adult world that Lucy brings to her imaginary one.

Along with being excruciatingly funny, Haidle’s script is also excruciatingly heart-wrenching.  Haidle’s skill in balancing the two is particularly dazzling in the scenes with Lucy’s real-life five-year old friend Larry.  Amitai Mamorstein so fully embraces Larry’s despair that when he and Lucy finally make a connection, only to be torn apart by Lucy’s imaginary demons, it is such a wonderfully realized moment that it will have you be reaching for a tissue.

Jay Clift as Mr. Marmalade and Sebastien Archibald as his assistant Bradley, give equal measure to their adult/child characters with hilarious results.  Archibald is particularly good here, managing to make Bradley sympathetic without the self-pity.

The rest of this capable cast (Sarah Canero, Kayla Dunbar, Brett Harris) bring some equally hilarious moments as other members of Lucy’s imaginary world and a few more serious glimpses into her real-life.

Director Chelsea Haberlin bridges each scene with what a pop song might sound like to a child that not allows us a respite from some of the darkness, but also provides a nice counterpoint to that darkness as well.  Wrapping it all inside Kyle Sutherland’s colourful blanket fort is an inspired choice.  And while the heat of the Little Mountain Gallery venue (I recommend sitting near the fan) is made almost bearable by a run time of less than 90 minutes, the awkwardness of the space continues to cause problems with sight lines.

With a central question that has nothing to do with wasting one’s childhood, but everything to do with how young girls interpret adult messages, Mr. Marmalade is really about breaking the cycle of abuse that far too many women endure.  And while its hopeful ending may be too tidy for some, wouldn’t you rather have a little more hope than status quo?

Mr. Marmalade by Noah Haidle.  Directed by Chelsea Haberlin.  A Latchkey Equity Co-op production.  On stage at Little Mountain Gallery (195 East 26 Ave) until August 30.  Visit http://brownpapertickets.com for tickets and information.