Dallas — Upon entering the Ochre House Theater, it’s clear that the patron has embarked on an adventure, a sort of treasure hunt without knowing whether the treasure even exists. It is a small, fascinating space that is the incubator for purely original work from the creative team shepherded by Matthew Posey.
Mrs. Haggardly, written and directed by Posey, takes place in an orphanage called the Home for Wayward Children, located on the edge of the Great Brutal War. While time and place are not specified, fascism is the force surrounding the characters. They are in the fight of their lives resisting the fascists who try to recruit the orphans for the war.
A line from the play refers to a story that goes something like this: For want of a better meal, a starving fox once captures a turtle, but it could not manage to break through the solid shell in order to eat it. “You should try putting me in the water for a while to soften me up,” suggested the shrewd turtle. This sounded like an excellent idea to the fox. He carried his prey to the stream and immersed it in the currents. The turtle, who was a superb swimmer, escaped and exclaimed “There are animals who are even more cunning than you!”
Not sure of what that means within this context? Then you are exactly where you need to be for experiencing this play. Posey has written a piece that is rooted in a knowledge of history, allegory and style, but presented in what some might consider an unconventional way. It is that break from conventional storytelling that draws one in and once inside, holds one’s interest in seeing what happens to the turtle and the fox, metaphorically speaking. Are these characters insane, or just terrifically clever? While not a comedy, it has humor. It is not a musical, but it has 12 musical numbers that take us down the conversational rabbit hole of what constitutes a musical, anyway? Oh. And there is a puppet. A large puppet.
Mrs. Haggardly (Matthew Posey), Madame Pigslips (Bill Bolender), and Mrs. Busybottom (Will Acker) are the matrons of the orphanage. The matrons enter and take their seats upstage in three exaggerated Jacobean Renaissance tall-back chairs facing the audience within an austere set that blends several periods. When the lights come up, their costumes (designed by Samantha Rodriguez Corgan) are impossible to ignore. After the initial what-in-the-strawberry-field-is-this jolt, it is obvious a lot of work went into the costumes and the wigs for this show.
In the matrons’ care are Lulu Lillylilly (Monét Lerner), Johnny Rumsrunner (Lauren Massey), Pumpkin Pants (Quinn Coffman), and Little Alfred (Chris Sykes). Company member Carla Parker is the General, and Brad Hennigan is Magister Huffenbergen. “Troubled” is a good word to describe the children. It is questionable whether they are safe with the matrons, who can be scary. One child has run away successfully; another pig-snouted child sits atop a very high ladder stool facing the wall wearing a dunce cap. Sufficest to say the children are not OK.
Leading the music is Justin Locklear as music director and composer; he is joined by Trey Pendergrass (Dr. Tangletwat) on organ, Gregg Prickett (Peter Knife Hands) on guitar, and Sarah Rubio-Rogerson (Blissninny) on cello.
Posey, Bolender and Acker are convincing as matrons struggling to protect the orphanage from the fascists, and to feed the children. They find themselves employing unusual means of responding to those challenges. This is a story about love in a warped kind of way. It is also a story about steadfastness and courage in the face of tyranny and war.
Former Dallas Theater Center actor Bill Bolender (read our interview with him here) returned from New York to do this play, and watching him is like a master class in performance. Posey’s character is the most mysterious, and most earnest, of the three. When it comes to serving attitude, Will Acker reigns supreme as Mrs. Busybottom.
While the costumes, hair, wig and makeup help transform the actors into their characters, that alone would not be adequate (though there were several wig mishaps on opening night); their physicality supports their roles. All of the action is framed in a set designed by Posey with scenic art by Izk Davies.
Visually, the puppet (designed by Locklear) is a treat but the transitions in and out of that section are a little rough to the extent that its reason for being there is obscured. Kevin Grammer’s lighting is particularly beautiful during the best musical number, “Fare Thee Well,” a very emotional moment for the title character.
Mrs. Haggardly is a story in which one can engage and enjoy. The amount of work and energy expended on the technical elements is impressive. From the synergy among the actors and musicians and the energy in the space, one thing seems obvious: productions at the Ochre House are love offerings.