Amy Keating wants to play with a coke-snorting Mr. Marmalade (Philip Riccio).
MR. MARMALADE by Noah Haidle, directed by Mitchell Cushman (Outside The March). At Holy Family Catholic School (141 Close). Runs to July 28, Monday-Saturday 7:30 pm. $20, $10 for under-30s on Mon and Wed. 416-504-7529, artsboxoffice.ca. See listing. Rating: NNNNN
Funny, raunchy and always fascinating, Mr. Marmalade follows the adventures of four-year-old Lucy (Amy Keating), a precocious child whose imaginary friend, Mr. Marmalade (Philip Riccio), is a drugged-up, insulting, vicious adult who offers her companionship but also makes her life hell.
Living with her self-centred single mother (Katherine Cullen) and left in the company of a bored teen babysitter with attitude (also Cullen) whose thoughts are on shagging her current boyfriend (Jason Chinn), Lucy finds a new acquaintance in the boyfriend's stepbrother, Larry (Ishai Buchbinder), a wide-eyed boy whose life experiences haven't been great. And he's only five.
Noah Haidle's extraordinary play explores the idea that we're fundamentally influenced by our youngest childhood experiences, whether or not we recognize the fact, and that the influence continues into adulthood. Tracing patterns of rejection, pain and need, Mr. Marmalade wraps its truths in laughter and absurd situations.
Director Mitchell Cushman's inventive production, designed by Jon Grosz, is site-specific: the action takes place in a kindergarten room filled with blocks, toy ovens, stuffed animals and a small sandbox that plays an important part in Mr. Marmalade's life.
Following the characters around the crowded classroom - you can sit on tiny chairs and have a juice-box break partway through the show - the audience is caught in a disorienting world where Lucy regularly indulges in hopscotch but has also learned to play the games of a grown-up relationship.
The performers are superb at conveying these complex characters, making some surprise entrances and shifting nimbly from cartoony, fast-action figures to moving, wounded souls.
Keating is a perfect Lucy, a golden-haired miss looking for affection in all the wrong places; candid and playful, she's clearly learned that the alphabet starts with "A" for "abusive."
Riccio's Mr. Marmalade is a boyish partner at the start, but he devolves quickly into a vicious, cruel man who makes promises he never intends to fulfil. Lucy often hears from him through his personal assistant, Brady (the charming Sebastien Heins), one of the play's more sympathetic figures, who has his own problems with rejection.
You won't find a more winning, gawky innocent than Buchbinder, whose Larry makes a journey as fraught as Lucy's but emerges, as she does, with the possibility of a better future.
The talented Cullen and Chinn are often paired in their multiple roles, most bizarrely as a duo of imaginary characters who are joined at the hip - or would be, if plants had hips.
Guiding the action is Julie Tepperman, a perfect Romper Room host who reads to us from a picture book and prepares us for Lucy's trials and tribulations with family and friends.
Look out the classroom windows every once in a while, for you'll see some of the action happening in the playground. And don't ignore the walls around you; Dana Buchbinder's decor provides some additional insights - through posters, cut-outs and blackboard drawings - into Lucy's world.
Playing house has never been so comical or so dark.