BWW Reviews: Forum Theatre's PLUTO Delves into the Surreal

BWW Reviews: Forum Theatre's PLUTO Delves into the Surreal

<a data-cke-saved-href=Jennifer Mendenhall & Mark Halpern

PLUTO, the new play by Steve Yockey now playing at Forum Theatre as part of the National New Play Network's Rolling World Premier, is laden with mythological symbols scattered about a most ordinary looking kitchen inhabited by a seemingly normal mom and her 20ish-year-old son. There is the three-headed dog, Cerebus, named for the mythological creature that guarded the underworld. There is Death, who, grim-reaper like, rumbles behind the door of the ordinary looking refrigerator, seeking access to the latest of the newly dead. And then, there is the macabre backstory of the young man's father who died laughing hysterically in his sleep, clad in the new green pajamas sold to him by Death as a salesman at the local mall.

This, we quickly realize, is no ordinary kitchen after all, and these, heartbreakingly, are no ordinary folk. The time--we are reminded many times--is, was, and perhaps ever will be, 9:30 am.

The slumping, slightly bed-headed young man, Bailey Miller, we come to realize in horror, has just murdered twelve people on the campus of his community college, then killed himself, at 9:30 that morning, when the burden of his alienation overwhelmed him and he exploded in a eruption of destruction like those visited upon our society today with terrifying regularity.

He used his dead father's guns, the father whose unexplained death has driven a wedge between the young man and his mother all these years, a chasm that his mother, in this frozen moment of time, desperately tries to bridge over the course of the play. She finally gives in to his pleadings; your father, she tells him, died of laughing in his sleep.

Death by laughing must surely be a case of life imitating art, and PLUTO is clearly a play of such surreal dimensions. Bailey's mother, Elizabeth Miller, found the whole affair so disturbingly bizarre that she has refused to discuss it. Her son, however, whom she had discovered laughing hysterically as she entered her kitchen a few minutes earlier, takes the manner of his father's death in stride, for indeed, he too is no stranger to the bizarre. What does it mean, one asks, to die by laughing? A quick Internet search nets a handful of real and fictional examples. A 3rd century BC Greek Stoic philosopher (an ironic twist), Chrysippus, died from laughing after seeing a donkey eat his figs. Fast forward a few thousand years to 2003 and one learns that a Thai ice cream salesman apparently died while laughing in his sleep. Switch over to the fictional world and examples abound, many in cartoons meant for children, others in darker literature meant for jaded adults. In the 2003 Batman movie, for example, Jack Nicholson's Joker-which brought that villain ever closer to the hinter regions of human depravity-kills with a poison that thrusts his victims into uncontrollable, deadly manic laughter.

Laughter as a lethal force. That is dark. But playwright Yockey does not shrink from it, nor from any other abyss hiding surrealistically beneath the surface of things. In PLUTO, laughter seems to take on a life of its own, a spontaneous force over which one has no control, a spasm of absurdity, of the irreconcilable randomness of the universe. Director Michael Dove underscores the invisible forces that damn the damaged. He overlays a casual normalcy on a backdrop of unthinkable tragedy, and the actors embrace this paradox and bring it home.

Mark Halpern's aimless Bailey is every mother's everyson, and it is heartbreaking to watch his narrative of destruction play out. Halpern gives the young man a disarming familiarity. He's a down-on-himself community college student who has a hard time with schoolwork and a harder time finding friends. Halpern plays Bailey with the deadpan irritability of an adolescent slouching toward adulthood, his low threshold for frustration and pain of isolation in hand.

He lives with his mom, played by Jennifer Mendenhall with a perfect pitch combination of world-weary flipness and authentic reaching out. If only, Mendenhall's mother shows us, she could reverse time, reconnect to her only child, heal his wounds, and guide him safely to manhood after all. If only they could go back to the time when Pluto was a planet. Mendenhall is a nuanced study in modern momhood, and its three steps forward, two steps back cha cha of gentle sarcasm and pleading.

In the suspended moment of 9:30 am, Bailey and his mother unwind the devastating sequence of events with an almost slow motion intimacy and deepening affection that disarms even the audience members working hardest to remain detached and distant from this tragic tale. Indeed, the emotional punch of Pluto comes from the differential between the goofy, surreal beginning of the play, and the achingly real human connection of its conclusion.

BWW Reviews: Forum Theatre's PLUTO Delves into the Surreal
Brynn Tucker & Mark Halpern

Into PLUTO's kitchen-sink mundanity comes Maxine, a childhood friend of Bailey's, and the unrequited love object of his adolescent affections. Maxine, a striking and hip young woman played with intense conviction and ruthlessness by Brynn Tucker, peels back the pretense of the play's normalcy. She harangues Bailey about his goings and comings on campus, about the inner workings of his haunted mind and tellingly peers down the back of his t-shirt and declares she can see the zipper down his spine. In her agitation Maxine resurrects the taunts and laughing ridicule experienced by Bailey at her adolescent hands, while the three-headed dog, meanwhile, keeps asking her to take of her coat, to reveal the dark truth hidden beneath.

As the three headed dog, Cerebus, Kimberly Gilbert brings an ease of candor and nonchalance to this most unusual of roles, serving as a kind of questioning Greek chorus to surface the darker story below. Clad in regular street clothes and with her extra heads apparent only through suggestion, Gilbert conveys her dogness with just a few choices poses and gestures. Like a concierge in a collar, Gilbert guides us effortlessly into this kitchenscape of the absurd.

After a few failed attempts to burst through the refrigerator, David Zimmerman as Death finally slides in wearing an old-school deep sea diving suit and helmet and rising, as he has clearly done, from the depths below. He sheds his bulky gear and emerges in a dazzling, dapper silk suit that literally shines with otherworldliness. Zimmerman's Death is genial and patient and the ever-present voice of the inevitable, and we are inclined to see the logic of his fated view. Trust me, he seems to say, this is all for the best.

BWW Reviews: Forum Theatre's PLUTO Delves into the Surreal
David Zimmerman & Kimberly Gilbert

What most distinguishes PLUTO is its late-play pivot to the deeply personal, to the heart-breaking "if-onlys" that we all ask ourselves when our young people implode or explode, reigning horror and tragedy upon our shared communities. In a painfully eloquent metaphor, Bailey finally tells his mother that he has been unzipping his skin from himself and sending it out into the world as an empty shell. But that morning, he tells her, he unzipped his skin and stuffed it in his backpack and went out into the world utterly exposed. The pain was unbearable and assuaged only by his furious act of violence.

PLUTO's strength, despite its twisted humor, is its empathy for the ravaged and marginalized and deeply dysfunctional children who daily navigate the hostile and unendurable worlds in which they live.
Playwright Yockey has made it possible for us to experience this empathy without betraying our revulsion at what our world's become.

The set by Scenic Designer John Bowhers and props by Patti Kalil capture the nondescript kitchen of a million homes. Costumes by Frank Labovitz reinforce the averageness of all involved (save Death, of course). Lighting by Katie McCreary and sound by Thomas Sowers quickly shift the mood from reality to unreality and give us clues as to what we are witnessing. Fight Director Casey Kaleba guides the physical confrontation with a deft hand. A show for the fearless and the fearful and everyone in between.

At Forum Theatre at Round House Theatre, 8641 Colesville Blvd., Silver Spring, MD
Through March 15, 2014
Tickets & Information:
Advisories: Adult themes

Photos by Jati Lindsay

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Elizabeth Bruce Elizabeth Bruce, co-founder of Sanctuary Theatre, is an educator, theatre artist, and novelist who has worked with children and artists for over 30 years. She has long led the Multidisciplinary Arts Program at CentroNía, and now serves as Community Arts Producer. She has received grants from the DC Commission on the Arts & Humanities and Poets & Writers, Inc., and founded the Women Artists/Women Healing series. Her debut novel, And Silent Left the Place—published by Washington Writers’ Publishing House—received distinctions from the Texas Institute of Letters, ForeWord Magazine, Small Press Distributors, and The Montserrat Review. She has studied with novelists Richard Bausch, John McNally, Lee K. Abbott and Janet Peery; her publishing credits include Paycock Press’ Gravity Dancers, Washington Post, Lines + Stars and others. A member of Playwrights Forum, her scripts have been staged at Adventure Theatre, Washington Ethical Society, Howard University and Sanctuary Theatre, as well as Carpetbag Theatre as the Lucas Award winner. She performed most recently with Solas Nua and Sanctuary at Capital Fringe Festivals, and holds a BA in English from Colorado College.

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