Review: Mustard (Tarragon)

Anand Rajaram and Sarah Dodd in Mustard, photo by Cylla von TiedemannTarragon Theatre brings the Dora Award-winning Mustard back to the Toronto stage

In Kat Sandler’s bright and offbeat Mustard, now being remounted at the Tarragon Theatre Extraspace, the titular character isn’t supposed to be there. Yet he persists. Mustard (Anand Rajaram) is Thai’s imaginary friend, confidant, and protector. That’s all well and good, but most imaginary friends aren’t supposed to hang around until you’re 16. Thai (Rebecca Liddiard), however, is both blessed and cursed with a giggly, rambunctious, fully-grown imaginary man with a penchant for scatological humour, because she needs a little extra love. Her father deserted the family, her mother drinks and takes pills to pretend to cope – and, oh, she’s pregnant by her college-age boyfriend.

Mustard has already won Doras for best production and performance (for Anand Rajaram), and it’s easy to see why. It’s got the bones of a typical family drama with an appealing atypical spin. It’s got humour, heart and fantasy — and it’s got just enough dark-edged, brutal danger to spice things up.

The cast is superlative. Sarah Dodd, who plays Thai’s mother Sadie, the “saddest sad,” is equally believable as a woman who’s given up, a mother who genuinely loves her daughter, and an alcoholic who’s horrified at the idea that she can suddenly see (hallucinate?) her daughter’s imaginary friend. Thai is a ticking time bomb of arms and legs.

Tony Nappo and Conrad Coates bring an appropriate degree of comic menace to the mysterious figures encouraging Mustard to leave the family on his own (it’s the only way, save by the imaginer’s choice) and head to what sounds like a desolate place of darkness. (Coates, in particular, has a wonderfully imposing bellow and a snazzy coat).

Travis Seetoo as boyfriend Jay is every painfully earnest “Milady”-using young man you’ve ever met (the character’s behaviour may be slightly over-the-top even for a story about an imaginary friend, but it serves as a nice critique of the romcom “grand gesture” narrative). Rajaram, of course, holds everything together with a surprising range of emotion for someone who’s not real.

The delight of Sandler’s work comes from both her fanciful scenarios and her playfulness with language, and both of these are present in abundance. Even without designer Michael Gianfrancesco’s whimsical costumes, imaginary characters would be instantly discernible by the way they come at dialogue from a slant, speaking slightly off-kilter, with a trademark of never being sure whether certain words are compound or separate.

This repeated linguistic question speaks to the separation anxiety that suffuses the play. The characters are desperate not to be alone, which causes them to lash out in internally and externally destructive ways. This loneliness is what may have manifested Mustard, but like a box of baking soda absorbing a fridge’s smell, he’s now a needy, suffering creature as well. After a certain point, is he helping, or must he leave to restore peace? Who is he, anyway?

Mustard serves to find darkness in silliness and light in the darkness. There’s a sweetness in its weirdness, such as tiny bits of magic in an otherwise very realistic set, or the sheer ridiculousness of an imaginary friend date-cum-therapy session that features a music box and highly unorthodox mixed drinks.

Unlike the uber-dark Mr. Marmalade (another condiment-named imaginary friend play that got the Outside the March treatment a few years ago), the character of Mustard seems generally well-intentioned, as well as hopelessly naïve and trusting. It makes some of the uncomfortable moments of his fumbling at human relations (trying to get between Thai and her boyfriend, attempting a kiss) both more and less palatable, but it certainly gives his potentially tragic fate some extra pathos. Fair warning: if you cried at Inside Out, bring a tissue.

Details:

  • Mustard plays until January 28, 2018 at Tarragon Theatre’s Extraspace (30 Bridgman Ave).
  • Shows run Tuesday-Saturday at 8 pm; Wednesday at 1:30 pm; Saturday and Sunday at 2:30 pm.
  • This show is approximately 90 minutes long with no intermission and no late seating.
  • Tickets can be purchased by calling Tarragon Patron Services at 416.531.1827 or online. Regular Tickets range from $22-$60 with discounts for seniors, students, groups and artsworkers. Online Rush tickets are sometimes available.
  • Rush Tickets: For every performance excluding opening night, specially priced $20 Rush Tickets will be sold (subject to availability) in person at the Box Office two hours before show time.

Photo of Anand Rajaram and Sarah Dodd by Cylla von Tiedemann

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