Mustard: when imaginary friends go hilariously wrong
by Drew Rowsome- photos by Cylla von Tiedemann
Saying something makes it real
And Kat Sandler writing something fantastical or outlandish makes it real. Mustard brings to life another of Sandler's high concepts and it is all the giddy fun and heartbreak that her fans will expect. And it will delight those who haven't had the privilege of seeing Rock, Delicacy, Sucker, Cockfight, Liver, or any the many others in her oeuvre. Yes, Sandler is prolific, but she is also consistently good.
Mustard takes place in a fully imagined alternate universe that is very Neil Gaiman, yet there is not an ounce of fat in the exposition: it is all contained in rapid-fire dialogue peppered with one-liners. It is a style that is impossible to categorize (a mash-up of door-slamming farce, sci-fi, melodrama, fairy tale, horror and Monty Python?) but easy to surrender to. The laughs and sense of wonder is completely winning, and the audience not only laughed heartily, but also collectively stifled sobs at a climactic moment. That Mustard is so moving, and feels so real, is only surprising because it is so gleefully ridiculous and whimsically gritty.
Director Ashlie Corcoran (The Gay Heritage Project) keeps Mustard zipping along. There is enough action and plot for a mini-series but also many fine tiny physical details. A naturalistic set becomes, when necessary, a fantastical realm with the addition of some subtle but effective effects. Important plot points and themes are buried in dialogue and gags that speed by but somehow what we need to know surfaces without being obtrusive.
The plot is convoluted but one crucial through line is that Mustard, a childhood imaginary friend of the protagonist, has stayed too long and two enforcers, the comically terrifying Julian Richings and Tony Nappo, have been sent to warn (ie: torture) him into leaving.This requires a tricky balance of comedy and brutality and the result is not black comedy but rather something more like emotional whiplash. The two enforcers, dressed very steam punk Gestapo. are also obsessed with wordplay, as if they wandered in from a leather version of Waiting for Godot. While it is amusing it seemed out of place until the very end when, as if it had been planted their subliminally, it suddenly becomes clear that Sandler has a powerful idea to communicate and has slipped it to us in a glossily wrapped entertainment.
As the titular Mustard, Anand Rajaram has an infectiously great time playing a hapless innocent exploring a confusing world. He juggles malapropisms, obscenities and fart jokes with equivalent aplomb. With his large liquid eyes that radiate whatever emotion he is experiencing, and a luxurious mop of hair, Rajaram is indeed an ideal imaginary friend come to life. His conjurer, or conjuree?, Rebecca Liddiard is an able foil and navigates some very vicious shifts in tone: she is the child, the one who needs protection, but she is also a budding violent serial killer.
Sarah Dodd is an utter delight as the pill-popping, wine-swilling mother. She delivers one-liners with cutting force, blusters hysterically and then crumples into aching vulnerability without missing a beat. It is a tour de force, most of the big laughs are hers but also some of the sweetest moments. When Mustard, an imaginary friend, watches wide-eyed as Dodd converses with the air where she drunkenly sees her estranged husband, Sandler piles metaphor on metaphor and Rajaram and Dodd turn it into a hilarious, heartbreaking and thought-provoking moment that lingers.
One of the best lines, "I was walking home and accidentally wrote you a poem," is delivered by Paolo Santalucia (Hamlet), who is the tragic manchild in a maelstrom trying to do the right thing. And to get a word in edgewise. He could be just a plot contrivance, a sidekick, but he manages to hold his own. The only complaint is that when his classical French farce butt-baring caught-naked-in-bed moment happens, he is far too assiduous in keeping his strikingly hirsute torso concealed.
Sure to be a crowd-pleaser, it initially seems a shame that Mustard is in such a small space. Sandler is the "it" playwright of the moment and there will be many theatre-goers who are curious to see how Sandler fares in a mainstream theatre, to compete with those already converted. However the close proximity has its benefits: there is a tender, horrible, hilarious moment that is underlined with the most delicate sound effect imaginable. A sound effect that is also a key to the entire evening. A larger space with effects that relied on magnitude rather than theatricality would work spectacularly, but the intimacy allows the audience to share in the heart of Mustard rather than just experience it. It would be wise to grab a ticket right away - getting one for your imaginary friend is optional as, after Mustard your relationship will irrevocably change.