Black comedy is a delicate art, an attempt to find humor in situations or issues that would make your skin crawl.
It’s a brave soul that even attempts to bring a black comedy to the stage, with pretty much even odds that the audience is either going to get and appreciate it, or not.
Jim Farrell, the artistic director of the year-old Splinter Group, does not want for bravery, as he stepped out on a ledge with "Mr. Marmalade," a play by Noah Haidle, one of the darlings of the au courant artistic set.
Farrell mounted this show with some outstanding Milwaukee actors, including Karen Estrada, Bryce Lord, Emily Vitrano and the always irrepressible Nate Press.
Estrada plays Lucy, a 4-year-old with an imaginary friend named Mr. Marmalade and enough personal complexes and issues to fill any psychiatric ward.
In a way, the theory behind the play is admirable. Take Lucy and give her a whole bunch of experiences that are more suited to adults on massive drug cocktails than to a 4-year-old, no matter how precocious.
Unfortunately, "Mr. Marmalade" – which runs through April 19 – is just too much of a one trick pony.
At some point, I whispered to myself, "Okay. I get it. She’s 4. She talks about suicide and sex and drug use and child abuse. Now, tell me something I can believe and care about."
The problem with this play – and this cast did all it could to lift it from its limbo – is that nobody did anything that made me give a hoot about what happened to them.
Zach Thomas Woods plays Mr. Marmalade, perhaps one of the creepiest characters I’ve ever seen. He moves from gentle tea parties to cocaine abuse, child abuse and creating the kind of tension that ends in the death of a baby. It’s impossible to see what Lucy sees in him.
It’s not enough that Lucy is just lonely and has created Mr. Marmalade to fill some vacant lot in the panorama of her life. If she created him, she would give him something that attracts her.
The cast does some heroic work to breathe life into this production.
Estrada is her usual smart and committed self as Lucy. She mixes childishness with the craven adult with aplomb.
Lord is an absolute marvel to watch as Bradley, the personal assistant to Mr. Marmalade. He loves Lucy but is solidly protective of his own life and Lord carefully helps Bradley straddle at least a couple of lifelines.
Vitrano is truly on the verge of becoming a member of the top tier of young Milwaukee actors. Here, she takes a turn as both Lucy’s horny babysitter and as Lucy’s mom. Vitrano has a great gift for comedic timing and clearly understands how important it is for actors to listen to each other on stage.
Press plays Larry, a 5-year-old boy who becomes the fancy of Lucy’s heart. With his bandaged wrists, he proudly tells her that he is the "youngest person to attempt suicide in New Jersey." There is an intimacy to Press that makes you want to give him a hug.
Even these performances, and the fine work done by the rest of the cast, can’t pull the play out if its black hole. Even fantasy or black comedy or plays far removed from realism need to give the audience a reason to care.
The other thing about a black comedy is that it needs to have comedy. "Mr. Marmalade" has some funny moments, but the jokes are cheap and somehow unsurprising. It’s almost like a bad "Saturday Night Live" skit that goes on and on and on.
In the notes to the play, the program has a statement about the play from Haidle:
"Part of the enjoyment of watching 'Mr. Marmalade' is watching a 20-something actor play a 4-year-old and walk around in a tutu. Your imagination has to work harder as an audience member than it would watching film or TV. The conceit that this 4-year-old has an imaginary friend who ends up acting like an abusive husband is very funny I think."
I’m glad he thinks it’s funny. It would be a shame if nobody did.
1 comment about this article.
Post your comment/review now
Disclaimer: Please note that Facebook comments are posted through Facebook and cannot be approved, edited or declined by OnMilwaukee.com. The opinions expressed in Facebook comments do not necessarily reflect those of OnMilwaukee.com or its staff.
Recent Articles & Blogs by Dave Begel
Published Aug. 27, 2015
With Donald Trump monopolizing the airwaves with his amazing campaign, it's important to recognize that our very own governor is also in this race. It is also important to note that there are significant differences between these two candidates.
Published Aug. 25, 2015
The 2015-16 theater season in Milwaukee is just underway and looking ahead there is promise of outstanding productions that will stimulate audiences to laugh, think and weep.It's an appropriate time to look back at the 2014-15 season that provided so much interesting theater. Milwaukee is fortunate to have so many theater companies, both old favorites and new and bold groups. We have a wealth of great theater that is abundant for a city our size.
Published Aug. 25, 2015
The injury to Jordy Nelson of the Green Bay Packers, as well as other injuries to players on other NFL teams in the last couple of weeks, is a blow to the teams as they approach the regular season.They also point to the continuing folly of having four preseason games, a relic of the past that serves no purpose other than to provide additional revenue to owners of teams in the most popular and highest revenue sport in the country.
Published Aug. 20, 2015
No less an authority than the United States Department of Justice has cracked open the door to allowing tribes, which are sovereign states, to grow marijuana on their reservations. Could this mean more revenue for Wisconsin tribes?
Published Aug. 16, 2015
Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Edward Albee has theory of evolution, if not about the existence of man, at least about the way one man lives and gets along with another. "Seascape," the third Pulitzer play Albee wrote, opened at American Players Theatre in Spring Green over the weekend and like his other great works, it looks at the evolution of relationships with an unerring eye and sensibility.
Published Aug. 15, 2015
There's this guy, see, and he lives in a hot apartment in Paris and he's got these three ladies, all of whom think he's going to marry them and they drop in and out of his place and he keeps track of all this dropping in and out by using the timetables of the airlines that the three ladies work for.
Published Aug. 14, 2015
Scott Walker is in danger of dropping off the radar screen unless someone lights a fire under him and gives him an injection of passion. He can learn a lot from the world of the theater, things that might actually make him seem like someone who cares.
Published Aug. 14, 2015
Angela Iannone, one of the finest actors ever to grace a stage in Milwaukee, has been engaged in a love affair for the past six years with a man who died when he was only 59 years old.Not only that, but the man died in June of 1893. Edwin Booth was his name, the finest actor of his time, the brother of the man who killed Abraham Lincoln and the object of desire for Iannone who has crafted a series of play about this lover.
Published Aug. 11, 2015
The PGA tournament, the final major of the golf season, gets underway this week at the beautiful Whistling Straits near Sheboygan. It's a great tournament, a great site and a wonderful chance for thousands and thousands of spectators to see the world's best golfers up close and personal. So here's a series of do's and don'ts if you are planning to go to Whistling Straits.
Published Aug. 6, 2015
Tonight is the culmination of lord knows how many weeks when 10 Republican candidates for president gather in front of a bank of lights and television cameras for the first debate. These events bear absolutely no resemblance to a real debate. They are just a simple chance for candidates to repeat scripted phrases about every issue imaginable.