Dallas — Imagine if childhood favorites like Pinocchio, The Velveteen Rabbit, or Toy Story were mashed up with some of the classics of existential theater, such as Beckett’s Waiting for Godot or Sartre’s No Exit. Add some songs, and you’ll arrive at Carla Parker’s Mousey. Parker directs her original dark musical for its world premiere at Ochre House Theater in Exposition Park. (You can read TheaterJones’ interview with Parker about her inspiration for this work here.)
The show opens on a child’s playroom with funeral for a stuffed animal. The other toys willingly play out their prescribed roles in this scene mourning the loss of Mr. Mousey. The audience soon learns that the toys are just playing at death; it’s something they do to pass the time. Docile Mrs. Mousey can’t complain, though. She’s all too happy to continue pouring tea and slicing cheese for her partner. But when newcomers appear who offer a vision of a different life, big questions begin to nag at her. Are the toys also just playing at friendship, at love, and at life itself? Are they simply shelf-sitting?
Marti Etheridge, fresh from her run as Lizzy in Just Girly Things, Danielle Georgiou Dance Group’s contribution to the Festival of Independent Theatres, captures Mrs. Mousey’s timidity as well as her longing for something more from life. Her journey is the focus of Mousey’s plot as she begins to question the meaning of life and her place in it. Her squeaky (though also impressively talented) singing voice is perfect in this role. Dante Martinez as the crusty Mr. Mousey offers his wife a stable life, albeit one without much passion. In Act Two, his advice to make one’s decision based on love is surprisingly tender.
Ochre House Theater’s artist-in-residence Justin Locklear nails the chaotic charisma of Jack, the leader of a band—literally, as in a house band—of sock monkeys that invades the otherwise placid playroom. He claims to be “the aliviest” of the toys. His raison d'être is best summed up in the lyrics he sings to Mrs. Mousey: “I wanna fu*k until we disappear.” But we soon learn that sock monkey love is a fickle thing.
Mitchell Parrack plays Junior, the gruff stuffed dog who, because of the heart design on his chest, asserts that he’s the one in charge of the ragtag family of toys. This character is well versed in the art of manipulation and, despite his claim that he hasn’t exaggerated “in a gazillion years,” hyperbole. Parrack admirably pulls off the role of playroom protector.
Kevin Grammer’s stoner Easter bunny Stuffy is a scene stealer. The requiem he sings for his lost brother hits all the right notes. It’s believably mournful while containing a punchline that will grab you by the funny bone. Grammer delivers his drug-induced advice to Jack, that in life you get what you get and it’s best not to pitch a fit, with earnest sincerity.
The cast is rounded out with Korey Parker and Ben Bryant. Parker’s porcelain-skinned fashion doll Barb opens Act Two by singing a particularly poignant song in which she explains her process for getting through the day when every day is the same. Having her remove her wig during the number amplifies the bleakness of the lyrics. These secondary characters, especially Bryant’s toy soldier Joseph, aren’t much developed beyond their stereotypical functions, which is a shame because it’s easy to miss some of the subtleties of their performances often relegated to the background.
The rest of the monkey house band members, comprised of Gregg Prickett, Sarah Rubio-Rogerson, and Will Acker, is bumped to the satellite stage that’s located to the left of the first row. Audiences are sure to fail to notice some of their antics by focusing only on the main stage in front. As accomplished musicians and fellow actors, however, they are inestimable additions.
Besides playing one of the lead characters, Locklear also serves as music director and composer for the production. With lyrics by the playwright, the songs are quite good, though they rely perhaps too much on their minor-key moodiness. It’s nevertheless refreshing to have songs in a musical that do more than merely advance the plot or serve as opportunities for the characters to emote. These ballads (dirges, really) reveal backstory and develop characters without interrupting the storyline. Junior’s “Top Dog” rap, while a nice contrast to the other musical numbers, isn’t as well executed. It’s the only time the audience has to strain to catch all the lyrics.
Ochre House founder Matthew Posey’s set design, while sufficient by itself, doesn’t quite fit within the logic of the scale. A thimble, for example, fits comfortably over Mrs. Mousey’s head, but that would make Mrs. Mousey far too small to receive the snuggles she craves from the child who own her. The same goes for the cartoonish paintbrush, spool of thread, and matchbox bed. Stuffy’s Easter basket seems to be the only prop that is to scale with the actors and the unseen child.
Costume designer Amie Carson appropriately relies on shabby chic toy fur for many of the outfits. Barb’s tattered gown adds a nice touch. The sock monkey costumes, however, fall short. Jack’s pants, for example, look like pajama bottoms held up with a rope belt.
Audiences should know that Mousey is not child-friendly. The adult language and themes of death make it more melancholic than merry. (In fact, the melancholy is kept fresh even during intermission with music like "I Will Always Love You" and "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" piped in.)
It all works in this angsty yet thoroughly enjoyable musing on the meaning of life.