When I attended Mr. Marmalade last Sunday, the maiden effort by Duende Productions, I came home with something I'd never received at a theatre presentation before - an original artwork. Granted, it was a crude crayon drawing on the front cover of my playbill, almost certainly an apple, but it's the gesture that counts. Glancing at as many other programs as I could after making this discovery, I noticed that the other playbills bore different colors and subjects in their drawings.
Duende's cottage-industry mentality jibes well with Noah Haidle's surreal comedy, which took CL's Best Comedy award when BareBones brought the show to Spirit Square in 2007. Bigger, more elaborate crayon masterworks adorn the salmon-colored walls of Lucy's bedroom, designed by Ben Pierce, where all the action takes place - with a megaboost from 4-year-old Lucy's precocious imagination. Considering the sensuality of the posters that also line Lucy's walls and the macabre nature of some of the things dangling down from her ceiling, I'd say Pierce is blurring the lines between reality and fantasy no less zestfully than the playwright.
Cassie Prodan, Duende's director, invites us to come onstage and explore Lucy's somewhat diseased lair, but the intimate size of the Warehouse Performing Arts Center up in Cornelius, far cozier than Duke Energy Theatre, already makes us feel closer to Lucy's world. Prodan and Pierce also have different ideas about Lucy's imaginary friends than James Yost when he directed the BareBones version. Robert Simmons had a slickster look about him as Mr. Marmalade, perhaps a little more Vegas high-roller than mafia hoodlum, and his battered assistant Bradley was decked out as a proper British butler when Robert Haulbrook played him.
Prodan doesn't have thoroughbreds like those, but her ideas make sense. Rob Carroll as Mr. Marmalade is a dapper businessman gone wrong - anger issues, coke addiction, and too little time for his beloved Lucy. Instead of a fantasy conjured up by lurid fixes of TV and Netflix, this Mr. M is more like a surrogate father who can't help resembling Lucy's real absent one. On the other hand, Shareef Elkady as our narrator, Bradley, is dressed up to be a playmate, more like the older brother Lucy doesn't have.
Such suppositions are subtly underscored by Prodan's blocking: Mr. M and his attaché case make their entrances from under Lucy's bed - and his slithery exits the same way - while Bradley always pops up out of Lucy's toybox. Of course, Lucy's fantasy soap opera is punctuated by visitors from the real world: Lucy's mom and her repellent boyfriend, Lucy's babysitter and her repellent boyfriend. Hey, Haidle knows how to play, and the taboo against boyfriends visiting on-duty babysitters is the best reason to have them humping loudly in the next room - while Lucy is kept amused by the boyfriend's suicidal tagalong kid brother. Toss in the suicidal kid's imaginary friends, namely a rowdy cactus and a sunflower, and it's a full evening for Lucy.
Just as Carroll's Marmalade isn't as menacing and confident as Simmons', Amy Wada isn't as manic as Beth Pierce was as Lucy. There's a softer intensity to Wada's childish obsession with games of house and doctor that makes her a more normal Lucy - in some ways, a more frightening prospect. So Wada's breakthrough performance last year in When You Comin' Back, Red Ryder at CAST was no fluke. Poppy Pritchett as the mom, Abigail Olson as the babysitter, Brad Tarr as the boyfriends and the cactus, and James McBrayer as the suicidal playmate have all zeroed in on the bent and insufferable traits Haidle cherishes most.
Marmalade is a laugh-filled take on post-parental suburbia laced with a tequila kick, and it's still a gem. I'd say that even if they hadn't given me an apple.