When Rugrats go awry

by Minji Kim

Before navigating the darkly humorous psychology of 4-year-old Lucy, "Mr. Marmalade" primes the audience with a montage of silent video clips from early '90s children’s pop culture. Rugrats, Lamb Chop with Shari Lewis, and Tom Hanks in the movie "Big" mime key scenes and induce the audience’s own trips down memory lane while they wait for the play to begin. Such subtleties of set design are key elements of any play, but they become imperative to "Mr. Marmalade," which runs through Oct. 2 in the Loeb Ex, in constructing the skewed architecture of Lucy’s troubled imagination.

A chandelier made out of hula hoops, Christmas lights, play pen balls, and alphabet blocks hang crookedly above the scene, adding a sense of decrepitude. The worn purple couch, pink and purple lighting, and tilted lavender window frames continue the feeling of inexplicable eeriness, despite the recognizable figments of a normal childhood, like the Little Tikes toybox and pink and yellow plastic tea set.

When the play begins, the disconcerting precocity of our young protagonist, Lucy becomes quickly apparent as she goes from playing with her Barbie and tea set to questioning her imaginary friend’s fidelity. While playing House, she asks Mr. Marmalade, "Why don’t you touch me anymore? Do you promise you aren’t cheating on me? Pinky swear?"

Between scenes, the staged is dimmed and bathed in pink and purple light, with prismatic dots of white and rainbow that move to the melody of a tinkering music box. Suburban living room becomes suburban Wonderland in these interims, emphasizing the disparity between Lucy’s innocence and her adult play, between her reality and her dramatic imagination. Imaginary friends enter through one door of her house, while members of reality use another—a segregation that organizes the antics on stage.

Each of the outrageous scenes is punctuated by the wry and deep-voiced narration, which is a clear poke at that of children’s audio books and TV narratives. At the end, when the audience is about to find out about how Lucy out grows Mr. Marmalade, the voice announces, "The final scene ends in death, which is where all stories end if you follow them long enough." Again, such a blithe pronouncement is only made complete with the pink prism lighting, which provides an irony as translated through set design.

"Mr. Marmalade" probes deeply and confidently into the heart of adult issues through the dysfunctional early childhood of little girl who just "[didn’t] want to be lonely." The set and lighting design, far from merely providing pretty colors and a place for the characters to live, acts as a formative supporting actor itself. The pinks, purples, and internal structure and design of the house made askew establish a mood of slight discomfort appropriate for an exploration into the psychological recesses of a hopefully uncommon childhood.

[Caption: Set of Mr. Marmalade, courtesy of The Harvard Crimson]