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Photograph by Cameron Fabrick
TEA AND NOT-SO-SYMPATHETIC: Lucy (Polina Krasnova) has an imaginary friend, Mr. Marmalade (Keith C. Marshall), who is anything but a role model.

Kid Power

A little girl gets into a grown-up spat in RTE's 'Mr. Marmalade'

By Mike Connor

DARK HUMOR is nothing if not useful. Nurses are notorious for using it to blunt the gruesome realities of the hospital emergency room. Playwright Noah Haidle tries using it to reflect the miserably defiled state of childhood innocence in Mr. Marmalade, Renegade Theatre Experiment's new production about a 4-year-old girl named Lucy whose imagination looks more like reality than it should. At first blush, Lucy, played by the doll-faced and charmingly childlike Polina Krasnova, is a recognizable little girl, the sweet and prim kind who likes imaginary tea parties and adults who play by her rules. But unlike many children whose imaginary worlds are little more than elaborate wish fulfillments, Lucy is endowed with what is gradually revealed as a hopelessly cynical inner worldview, and one that incorporates some disturbingly adult themes into its narratives.

Most of the play takes place during a single evening, when Lucy is left at home with a baby sitter who spends most of the night having sex with her boyfriend upstairs. The set is black, sparsely decorated with some abstract polygons, a door, a staircase, a couch and a coffee table. Her imaginary friend Mr. Marmalade (Keith C. Marshall) is a middle-aged man in a pinstripe suit who, at the beginning of the play, is the sort of docile, well-to-do caretaker that one might expect the daughter of a single, promiscuous and neglectful mother (Morgan Voellger) to conjure. Right from the start, we get clues that perhaps little Lucy has had some bad role models or been watching too many soap operas as she complains, like a neglected wife, that Mr. Marmalade hasn't touched her lately and imagines Mr. Marmalade complaining in turn that he's overworked and tired.

It gets much, much worse. Mr. Marmalade beats his imaginary assistant for forgetting his dry cleaning. He also drinks too much and snorts cocaine. At one point, he accidentally spills a huge stash of porn from his briefcase. When Lucy threatens to leave him, he yells back at her: "Because of a little porn? It's not even mine!" Compounding the chaos of Mr. Marmalade's downward spiral is a real-life toddler tryst between Lucy and the baby sitter's boyfriend's 5-year-old brother, Larry, whose wrists are still bandaged from his recent suicide attempt. He proudly proclaims his act the "youngest suicide attempt in the history of New Jersey," explaining that if he was in fact experiencing the most carefree part of his life as the adults around him said he was, then he didn't care to live the rest of it. But little Larry finds a glimmer of happiness with Lucy, even as she and Mr. Marmalade are sucked into a twisted downward spiral. Marmalade lounges around in a wife beater and underwear demanding beer and silence. When he learns that Lucy "played doctor" with someone else, he screams at her, "You're not gonna leave me for a toddler!"

Lucy imagines a bloody conclusion, exaggerated, of course, to the point of comic absurdity. Where, exactly, Lucy comes by her extensive knowledge of adult life and her inability to imagine a happy ending is never explained, leaving us to speculate for ourselves. The adults around her are no angels, but neither are they presented as abusive or murderous. More likely, Lucy's fears come from that weird sweet spot of the collective imagination where fact and fiction play their own little game of "doctor" in which everyone winds up a little sick.

MR. MARMALADE, a Renegade Theatre Experiment production, plays Thursday–Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm through Nov. 16 at the Historical Hoover Theater, 1635 Park Ave., San Jose. Tickets are $13–$18. (408.351.4440)

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