Tarragon Theatre continues to deliver distinctively dark comedies this season and Kat Sandler’s Mustard is no exception. The production examines the transition between childhood innocence and adult responsibility, between fantasy and reality and between destruction and personal care.
Mustard (Anand Rajaram) is a fully grown man who wears clown-like overalls and a jingly jester hat, and lives under the bed of perturbed 16-year-old Thai (Rebecca Liddiard). Exercising the maturity of a five-year-old, Mustard spends most of his time dishing out scatological humour, aggravating an aggressive youth and providing whimsical advice to pill-popping down-on-her-luck Sadie (Sarah Dodd).
This exuberant imaginary friend also known as a “Boon” has been with Thai for years, but recently he seems to trigger violent emotions in the troubled teen. Still, Mustard bears witness to the family troubles, especially Thai’s inability to form healthy relationships with others as she refuses to come to terms with her mother’s grief. We learn that Boons are typically limited to their owner, and conflict arises when Mustard breaks this rules and reaches out to Thai’s mother Sadie in an effort to remedy her deep depression.
This off-beat coming-of-age story, has quite a few melancholy moments. Every time Thai calls her mother out for giving up and turning to wine and pain killers, your heart sinks a little. This makes for excellent juxtapositions between love and harm. Sandler's tight script is very unique and each scene pushes the show forward. Mustard is the sweet fruit that is beginning to spoil and throughout the play we are reminded how one has to give up childhood innocence at some point.
While Mustard’s costume remained a focal point, Michael Gianfrancesco perfectly captured Sadie’s emotional frailty by dressing her in frumpy sweatpants, slipper boots and an I-can’t-let-go-of-my-ex-husband sweater. Dodd owned this more challenging role and was very believable as a mother failing to live up to her own personal and family goals. Sadie is so starved for love that she even agrees to go on a date with Mustard, only to later use him as a therapist.
Mustard makes light of the desolate circumstances with his misunderstanding and employment of language. Mustard discovers words without fully comprehending their social functions. This allows for some dark jokes and reflection on the power of language. For example, when Mustard asks whether he should dress up like Sadie’s ex-husband on their date, Sadie tells him that her ex used to wear “a three piece suit and sometimes a vest.” In turn, Mustard changes and highlights his attention to detail by announcing to Sadie that he has even gone as far as to wear a “sometimes vest” to please her.
This date is one of the most humourous moments of the play as Mustard transforms Sadie’s divorce papers into sailor hats and pours Pop Rocks candy into the wine. During the date/twisted therapy session Mustard functions as a mediator between Thai and Sadie. Sandler also skillfully shows how Mustard is a product of his environment. We see his immaturity as he gets grossed out by Thai’s sexual appetite and mirrors Thai’s escapist behaviour by avoiding the Boon authorities’ advice.
The two Boonswallow authorities (Tony Nappo and Julian Richings) supply the play with a sense of urgency for Mustard’s prolonged visit with Thai. The duo sneaks onstage dressed in all black with old school motorcycle goggles. These characters are easily a crowd pleaser with their comical quips, British-style banter and fascination with wordplay, in particular whether a word merits a space in between it. “Crazy person, one word or two?”
Under the direction of Ashlie Corcoran, any scene with physical violence is performed without a hitch. The scenes where the Boon authorities torture Mustard are seamless with a lot of detail like the little bit of blood that is shown on the stuffed animal they use to gag Mustard. Liddiard also deserves an honourable mention for her scenes where she treats her boyfriend Jay (Paolo Santalucia) like absolute dirt. Liddiard appears more like a mentally messed up teen and not a self-centered brat, something that the play ran the risk of portraying.
Jay’s sweet-natured but dumbfounded character compliments Thai’s dysfunctional personality. We gravitate to liking this poor boy who endures a lot of abuse but remains loyal to Thai. Santalucia’s ability to capture a relatable style of youthfulness reminded me of many high school boyfriends. Jay’s character furthers the narrative on the destructive nature of childhood behaviour that has been prolonged. As the play goes on we can see the severity of Mustard's presence on Thai’s already cluttered mind.
Mustard runs until March 13 at Tarragon Theatre, 30 Bridgman Ave. For more information visit tarragontheatre.com.