Mind-bending brilliance: 'Mrs. Haggardly' by Matthew Posey at Ochre House Theatre
On the outskirts of Deep Ellum, nestled between a building that houses a magic show and a small pub, there is a blue door, behind which is a new world. Stepping into the space at Ochre House Theatre, I felt transported away from the busy bustle of Dallas nightlife. The intimate performance house is a magical little spot. I’m 11 years late to the Ochre House party, but I’m glad I made it.
When I interviewed Ochre House Artistic Director Matthew Posey about their new play, Mrs. Haggardly (currently playing through February 29 and Written and Directed by Posey), one of my biggest takeaways was that the stories they tell at Ochre House are stories that invite questions. And that by deconstructing our traditional ideas of performance, we can view universal stories in a new way.
Mrs. Haggardly is a story about love in a time of war. The love in the story, which centers around a small orphanage in the throes of a “great war,” isn’t a rom-com saccharine portrayal of love. The madams or caretakers in this orphanage have questionable motives, and the orphans themselves are not the innocent “please save me” types.
Mrs. Haggardly is mind-bending. Matthew Posey’s set design sets the tone for what is to come. The three tall chairs that sit center stage could be thrones, torture chairs, or even stylized chamber pots. When the lights come up on the first scene, the sight of three men with wigs almost as tall as the chairs next to a “discipline stick” that’s encased behind glass left me wondering whether this orphanage was a safe place, or if it had succumb to the darkness of war.
That question stuck with me as the story of this mysterious place, and the people in it, unfolded. Between funny songs (beautifully composed by Music Director Justin Locklear) and satirical scenes, there is a nightmarish quality I couldn’t quite shake. I felt a little uneasy - aware that at any moment the discipline stick would come out.
The orphans in this wayward home are desperate, dirty, and carry a somber history you never learn about but can somehow feel. Are they punished or abused by Mrs. Haggardly and her fellow madams? Is this place a home for them, or the only respite from the white noise hum of societal atrocities? I guess when you know you’re prey, you make a home wherever you can – even in the scariest of places.
The orphans in the story: pig-snouted dunce Lulu Lillylilly (Monet Lerner), Oliver-esque hooligan Little Alfred (Chris Sykes), scrappy cook Pumpkin Pants (Quinn Coffman), and freedom fighter Johnny Rumsrummer (Lauren Massey) bring a buoyancy to the story, even with their own skewed perception of reality. The group of misfits made me laugh during the musical number ‘Life if Rolling the Bones, Baby’ and broke my heart in their search for God, answers, or freedom. Despite the undercurrent of persistent threat, the humor in the story is crucial and the strong ensemble of orphans deliver it.
As Mrs. Haggardly, Matthew Posey expertly balances the nurturing caretaker and abusive parent. I wasn’t sure if I should trust her or fear her. The role is intimidating, and I thought that loving Mrs. Haggardly must be like loving a narcissist…is any of it real? Posey’s physical size is intimidating as well, and I liked that about the character. Mrs. Haggardly is adorned with a very tall wig and large skirts, which are beautifully designed by Costume Designer Samantha Rodriguez Corgan. Corgan’s costume design is among the most detailed and sophisticated I’ve seen in Dallas.
As Mrs. Busybottom, Will Acker is snooty and inquisitive. From my perspective, she seems to have an awareness that the world in which she finds herself is surreal to a maddening level. Having come through the system of this wayward home for children herself, Mrs. Busybottom’s search for an unnamed existential belonging mirrors the orphans’ same search. I found her oddly relatable. It’s an emotional sensation that’s difficult to name, but it all came from Acker’s adept skill.
Bill Bolender’s Madam Pigslips offers a grounded wisdom from having seen it all for way too long – nothing in the world of Mrs. Haggardly is surprising anymore. Despite being an old pro in this wacky world, Bolender delivers a funny expertise without an ounce of contrivance. I thought of a quote from Absurdist playwright Jean Genet: “nothing human is foreign to me.”
Kevin Grammer’s lighting design contributed a great deal to creating the environment. He provided a layered light-scape that undulated between soft blues and violets in the quieter moments, and a wash of gold and brown in the grander scenes. Theatre practitioners have been known to say that if you don’t notice a lighting design, it means the designer has successfully created a world, that in a sense, they’ve “done their job” – that lighting design should be an invisible foundation to serve the story and nothing more. But in this case, I vehemently disagree. Grammer’s addition to the story enhanced and deepened the emotion. In this surreal and sometimes confusing place, his lighting choices were a touchstone.
I don’t think I can wrap this review up without a mention of the puppet. First, it’s a beautiful piece of art to behold. The voice and music that come with it are haunting and hopeful... maybe the same way the idea of God is both scary and miraculous. That’s as far as I can go to not spoil the ending…suffice it to say the puppet offers a sense of awe and only deepened my reflection. However you interpret its purpose, the puppet is unforgettable.
Mrs. Haggardly is one of the most fascinating pieces of art I’ve seen. It’s a visceral experience and an acknowledgment of the shocking and confusing times in which we find ourselves. Here’s my advice for when you choose to see it (and I recommend you see it…) – open your mind, turn off your logic, and surrender to the absurd mystery.
Mrs Haggardly is Written and Directed by Ochre House Theatre Artistic Director Matthew Posey. Performances through February 29, 2020 at 25 Exposition Ave, Dallas. For tickets, visit www.ochrehousetheater.org or call (214) 826-6273.