‘Pluto’ at Forum Theatre by Amanda Gunther

“If I speak in the tongue of men or angels but do not have love I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” 1 Corinthians 13 or so the Bible says. What greater thing could there be to have in this world where logic is so inside out and laws are upside down than love? But even then is love enough? Forum Theatre partakes in the National New Play Network Rolling World Premier of Pluto, a mind-boggling, yet strikingly provocative, piece of theatre written by Steve Yockey. Directed by Michael Dove, words cannot begin to describe the sensation of being struck by the emotional reality and superb brilliance crafted into this new work.

Death (David Zimmerman) and Cerberus (Kimberly Gilbert). Photo by Jati Lindsay.
Death (David Zimmerman) and Cerberus (Kimberly Gilbert). Photo by Jati Lindsay.

Playwright Steve Yockey brings such an amalgamation of forces together in one tightly packed one-act play that at first it seems like a jumble of concepts, and an attempt to use every literary and fictional device to create this work into something bigger than itself. But when the conclusion of the piece hits, tying together all the elements of mythology, suspension of disbelief, raw emotional tragedy, humanity and everything that falls in-between; the mind is left whirring trying to fully comprehend everything that was just witnessed. A truly evocative piece of theatre that hits home – even when hitting from far away – it is nothing less than stunning.

Yockey packs so much symbolism into the performance, from the title of the play itself to the finer more nuanced moments – like Death emerging from the refrigerator – that it becomes so overt and overbearing that it is once again subtle. Warping and disorienting magical realism into a sort of mythological realism is a refreshing new take on the disbeliefs of society and culture finely woven into this work. There are moments in the play that are so surreal they feel realistic and moments of reality that are so absurd it becomes a blur of emotions and events that coalesce as one heart-stopping feeling.

The commentary that Yockey’s work is making on society, both by his inclusion of Greek and Roman mythological concepts as well as the school tragedy as a framework setting, is a poignant evaluation of what society and humanity has done with these things. Desensitization is a factor that is brought to the forefront of this work when dramatic plot twists are revealed and events unfold. For fear of giving away Yockey’s brilliance and stunning genius I will simply say that it is a charged piece of work that must be experienced, disorienting as it is. The intentional disorientation allows for the conclusion of the play to be that much more intense; the profundity with which it impacts the audience is astonishing.

Words cannot do a thorough justice to this concept not only as a new work but as an evocative piece of theatre that is designed in essence to do what theatre should be doing in the first place; making the audience think, feel, and question what it is they have just seen and how it relates to, impacts, or effects their lives. Director Michael Dove drives this thrilling new work in a fashion that allows every intricate detail of the play to provoke these questions and feelings.

Scenic Designer John Bowhers crafts perfection into this seemingly normal household. An average kitchen where nothing seems out of the ordinary; something remarkable in an otherwise unremarkable space glowing in the warming tones that Bowhers has chosen. It’s the upside down cherry blossom tree that catches the eye; symbolically woven into the play and then physically presented in the set, Bowhers incorporates this element in a bizarrely beautiful manner, making it seem perfectly ordinary and wondrous while horrifically out of place at the same time.

Lighting Designer Katie McCreary and Sound Designer Thomas Sowers authenticate the disorienting notions of Yockey’s work with the sudden intense bursts of sound and changes of light when the inevitable is approaching. McCreary’s focused approach to using light as an augmentation— be it to feelings or events that are unfolding— makes the production that much more intense. As do swells and crescendos of unearthly sounds created by Sowers that often accompany the moments where the lights shift.

Acting in a piece such as this can afford to be nothing less than raw and engaging. With only five characters, each actor knows his or her place and delivers a stunning performance of exposed emotions, tightly contained characterizations, and an overall phenomenal work in just 90 short minutes. Brynn Tucker as the spastic Maxine gives a riveting rendition of psychotic every time she appears on the stage. Her chaotic force is tempered sharply by the unsettling tranquility found in Cerberus (Kimberly Gilbert).

Gilbert’s mannerisms, including the rigid patterns in which she moves about the space, are a pure reflection of a dog. Repetitive anxious speech, often heightened with inexplicable excitement, and sharp determined statements reminiscent of defensive barking all culminates in her performance to create an anthropomorphic existence of this three-headed talking dog. It is, however, not her doglike qualities that make her portrayal so stunning but the eerie sense of calm that resounds from her internally that lets a disturbing ease settle over the play in her presence.

Elizabeth (Jennifer Mendenhall) and Bailey (Mark Halpern). Photo by Jati Lindsay.
Elizabeth (Jennifer Mendenhall) and Bailey (Mark Halpern). Photo by Jati Lindsay.

Death (David Zimmerman) is a physical manifestation that exists only in momentary occupancies of breath and words. Zimmerman encapsulates the impossibility of being Death in human form with his fluid yet jarred fashion of speaking. There is an opposing dichotomy perpetually at war within his character both physically and mentally making him fascinating and yet frightening. His interactions with Elizabeth (Jennifer Mendenhall) are both things that inspire awe and great sorrow.

download (1)Mendenhall finds hints of levity in her character, particularly when interacting with Bailey (Mark Halpern). Playing to fruition the notion of the ‘hip mother’ character, Mendenhall transcends that superficiality with a deeper and more complex emotional divulgence toward the end of the production. Creating an unfathomably dynamic performance, Mendenhall thoroughly blows the minds of everyone who is watching.

Halpern has equally startling emotional eruptions, a sharp contrast to his sarcastic and downer personality as a college student. The pair creates stunning moments between them, especially as the production reaches its impossible conclusion.

Pluto will make you think. It will make you reevaluate. It will make you question; and this is what theatre is meant to do; a production that you must see because you’ve never seen theatre like this that leaves this sort of impact in such a short burst of blinding light.

Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Pluto plays through March 15, 2014 at Forum Theatre—Round House Theatre Silver Spring –  8641 Colesville Road, in Silver Spring, MD. All performances of Forum Theatre’s new Forum For All initiative are walk-up pay-what-you can tickets. A small limited number of advanced tickets will be available for each show by phoning the box office at (240) 644-1100, or checking online.


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