Mercury Players Theatre's Exchange at Café Mimosa opened on Halloween, which was fitting for such a surreal show. The audience was dotted with costumed revelers, an omen that something unusual was about to unfold. With a devil, angel and Carmen Miranda in the audience, you can't help but expect something wild to happen on stage.
Indeed, the crowd seemed to be a good fit, laughing generously at what may or may not have been the right places. (In a show like this, everything seems somewhat funny.) A trip into the unreal, this show is not for people who expect a show to make complete sense on first glance. In fact, to really enjoy the absurd, an audience must be willing to sink into the surreal as one would linger in a delightful, albeit nonsensical, dream. A few cocktails don't hurt either.
But don't worry, all you risk-taking traditionalists. There is a plot! Exchange at Café Mimosa is a tale of two couples, one from Milwaukee and one from Europe, participating in a transaction involving a tropical island and two boxes, wrapped in brown paper, contents unknown. Along the way, all sorts of things get exchanged. (This might be a fitting time to remind you that this show is intended for mature audiences.) There are also some entertaining side-stories: lovers who tiff over grammatical issues, a roly-poly naughty little boy and a guy who speaks only Chinese.
These side stories are an important way to keep the audience engaged throughout the show. Exchange at Café Mimosa is performed on the Bartell's Evjue Stage, a black box theater. Black box arrangements are often a great way to include the audience more actively in a small-scale production. However, in this show I often felt like I was merely watching the main actors' backs. The side stories kept my attention on the stage and not on the doodles in my notebook. Perhaps more traditional staging would have made a better pairing for a nonlinear show like this.
While the acting of the entire cast is solid, it's the women who particularly shine in this production. Amy Sawyers punctuates the role of stuffy Marie-Louise with small, perfectly done details: a muted French accent and the gesticulations of a not-quite-wealthy-enough aristocrat. Rachel Jenkins-Bledsoe plays up the naveté of June and creates a character who says she's from Milwaukee, but appears to be from Waukesha. Mercury Players darling Kelly Maxwell plays a sultry parrot (who knew a parrot could be sultry?) with a salty attitude and a hearing impairment.
One of my favorite things about Mercury Players is their insouciance about the human body. In their productions, the body and sexuality are presented matter-of-factly; "people have bodies and they have sex, so what?" seems to be the reigning philosophy of this theater company. In Exchange at Café Mimosa, the human body - all shapes and sizes - is showcased in a way that reminds the audience members of their own inherent sexiness. In a world so obsessed with perfection, a celebration of the continuum of normal is wonderfully refreshing.