Mustard a tasty treat for Tarragon audiences

Mustard, by Kat Sandler, directed by Ashlie Corcoran, running at Tarragon Theatre’s Extraspace to Mar. 13.

There’s something magical about a good fairy tale: the way it evokes a sense that anything could happen, and often does, while reaching a conclusion that somehow feels both unpredictable and inevitable.

Mustard by Kat Sandler, a Toronto Fringe Festival veteran making her Tarragon debut, captures that magic too.

The story of a girl (Rebecca Liddiard), who can still see her motley-clad imaginary friend (Anand Rajaram) at 16, and her depressed, heartbroken mother (Sarah Dodd), who would rather kill herself than sign her divorce papers until she starts seeing him too, Mustard is a fairy tale in the old sense. It’s full of whimsy, yes, containing possibly the single funniest line I’ve heard in a play, but also unflinchingly dark in places. While most of it involves imaginary people, this is easily the most violent show I’ve seen at the Tarragon.

Lest the above paragraph scare you away, let me also assure you that any darkness in the story is handled with a surprisingly light touch. None of the violence or despair comes off as forced or melodramatic.

Much of that deftness can be traced to the cast. As the apparent villains, Julian Richings and Tony Nappo (speaking in broad English and Italian mob accents, respectively) engage in some of the play’s wittiest banter, while as Liddiard’s boyfriend and the hapless victim of some of the play’s worst violence, Paolo Santalucia radiates a sincere desire for penance, more than convincing in his belief that he deserves everything that happens to him, including someone breaking a glass bottle above his eye.

Yet the show ultimately belongs to its co-protagonists. As 16 year-old Thai, her mother Sadie, and the title jester himself, Liddiard, Dodd and Rajaram bring their already three-dimensional characters to vivid life, pulling us into their stories and earning our sympathy even when acting in very, very selfish ways. (The least selfish characters, ironically enough, are the villains.)

Does it seem like I’m omitting too many details? That’s by design: I’d rather you saw Mustard than read my review. Like a 21st-century Shakespeare, Sandler has written a show that plays to the rafters as well as the orchestra, easily bouncing from childish jokes about fecal matter to epigrams to bad puns, often in the same scene. With half a generation between each of the three leads, I imagine the show would connect as well with a viewer of 16 and a viewer of 60 as it did with me.

It’s superbly directed too, by Ashlie Corcoran, with an eye-popping set that lets the audience peer into a suburban home while providing plenty of nooks and crannies for the actors to make inconspicuous exits.

The audience seemed to share my enthusiasm, with nearly the entire auditorium giving it a long, loud standing ovation.

In short, Mustard is the type of show that reminds me why I love theatre in the first place.