Review: Mustard (Tarragon Theatre)

Mustard, at the Tarragon Theatre in Toronto, is “smart, funny” and “absolutely superb”

Anand Rajarm and Rebecca Liddiard in Mustard by Cylia von TiedemannAt its core, Mustard (now onstage at Tarragon Theatre Extraspace) may be one of those coming-of-age stories that teen shows are made of, but playwright Kat Sandler turns all the conventional tropes on its head in this entertaining but slightly confusing show.

16-year-old Thai, played with terrifying accuracy by Rebecca Liddiard, still clings to her invisible best friend Mustard despite being in a very grown-up relationship with college boyfriend Jay. Things take a turn for the weird when Thai’s mother Sadie also begins to see Mustard while grieving over the loss of her husband and the breakdown of her relationship with her daughter. Then, there are the mysterious but menacing Leslie and Jay who are willing to do almost anything to get Mustard to leave.

Sandler’s smart, funny dialogue manages to explore complicated topics like reality versus fantasy, reproductive rights, and inter-generational violence without sounding affected. Director Ashlie Corcoran also does a terrific job of bringing out the nuances in Sandler’s writing through the action.

There is a particularly great scene where Thai is physically stuck between Mustard and her boyfriend while both of them argue with her over the right to choose how to handle her pregnancy. Later, Corcoran makes it crystal clear, with a perfectly choreographed last scene, why Thai turns to violence to cope with her emotional trauma.

While Sandler acknowledges some of the more outrageous plot points in a few meta-theatrical moments – like Sadie’s line about how creepy it actually was for Mustard, a middle-aged man, to live under a teenage girl’s bed – I wish the characters had bigger reactions to these moments. Every play requires some suspension of disbelief but for a show that exists in the space between realism and fantasy, I wish the characters would’ve had a more shocking response to the ridiculousness of their situation.

Furthermore, although I liked the overall message of Sandler’s endgame, there were so many different side/sub-plots that the ending seemed like a toss-up rather than the result of a natural build. There also didn’t seem to be enough time for all of the ideas mentioned to be fully explored.

Nonetheless, in general the acting was absolutely superb. The ensemble ably nailed almost every comedic highlight and every emotional rung. I believed every argument and every embrace between Sarah Dodd and Rebecca Liddiard. Anand Rajaram is pretty much capable of doing anything on stage and Paolo Santalucia has impeccable comedic timing. Julian Richings and Tony Nappo’s commitment to their witty henchmen roles were my companion’s favourite performances of the night.

Michael Gianfrancesco’s set design of Thai and Sadie’s house wisely falls on the side of realism and, by making us feel like voyeurs, accentuated the emotional tenors of the play. The transition into fantasy was ably done through Graeme S. Thomson and Nick Andison’s interesting lighting design and a shout out has to go out to Christopher Stanton for his pitch-perfect music choices.

Whether it was intentional or not, I feel compelled to mention that there was something inherently political about watching Anand Rajaram – the only visible actor of colour onstage – play an “invisible” character who is begging to stay and literally tortured when he refuses to leave.

I also couldn’t help but notice that Thai – played by a white actor – never had to face any real consequences for her increasingly violent behaviour. At a time when racial tension and refugee crises rightfully dominate our national and international discourse, I think it is important for these casting choices to be noticed and discussed.

Details:

  • Mustard is playing until March 13th, 2016 at Tarragon Theatre’s Extraspace (30 Bridgman Ave).
  • Shows run Tuesday-Saturday at 8pm; Sunday at 2:30pm; select Saturdays February 13, 20 & 27 at 2:30pm.
  • This show is approximately 90 minutes long with no intermission.
  • Tickets can be purchased by calling Tarragon Patron Services at 416.531.1827 or online. Regular Tickets range from $28-$60 with discounts for seniors, students, groups and artsworkers.
  • Rush Tickets: For every performance excluding opening night, specially priced $15 Rush Tickets will be sold (subject to availability) in person at the Box Office two hours before show time.
  • Recommended for Teens & Up audiences.

Photo of Anand Rajarm and Rebecca Liddiard by Cylla von Tiedemann.