Pluto – Stray Cat Theatre, Tempe

Pluto poster

“I don’t like that at all,” states mom, Elizabeth (Neda Tavassoli) when she first hears the news that Pluto is no longer considered a planet, particular now that it upsets her formula for remembering all the names of the planets in the solar system.

In Pluto, the new and unsettling play from writer Steve Yockey now playing at Ron May’s Stray Cat Theatre in Tempe, discovering the truth behind that dwarf planet’s existence is only one of several episodes that will upset the struggling, single-mother’s day.  In fact, considering the other revelations soon to follow, the importance of Pluto’s demotion will be the least of her concerns.  “This is going to be a normal day,” Elizabeth chants like a mantra as if its constant repetition will somehow make it so, but on this particular morning and at this particular time, 9:30 a.m., nothing is normal, and for Elizabeth, nothing will ever be the same again.

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Scenic designer Eric Beeck’s set is a salute to suburban normalcy.  It’s a well-detailed kitchen with a dining area that’s as neatly kept and as clinically clean as any normal kitchen and dining area in a modest American home would be.  It’s all there; the kitchen sink, the wooden wall cabinets, the radio, and the large and slightly over-sized refrigerator.  There’s even a family dog sitting there, silently perched on a raised platform, surveying everything and everyone passing before it, keeping check, like a good guard dog should do.  But all is not as it seems.

For one thing, the animal is a three-headed dog called Cerberus (Yolanda London) who occasionally comments on things.  “You don’t have a lot of time,” the dog says to Elizabeth.  Then there’s the refrigerator against the wall that violently shakes as if an earthquake has kicked in, not to mention that the radio has a habit of turning itself on with a news announcer who seems to report directly to Elizabeth – it keeps saying something about a nearby shooting but we’re never quite sure – even though Elizabeth doesn’t want to hear.  “That’s an oddly specific radio broadcast,” Elizabeth declares when she hears the announcer mention her name.  And to cap it all, there’s the tree in the corner looking as though it’s crashed, upside down, through the ceiling, its branches and blossoms blocking the way to the rest of the house.

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To explain anything further is to spoil everything, even if it makes discussing events difficult; but there’s a point somewhere around the thirty minute mark where certain things fall into place and what you suspect might be going on among the unfolding mayhem is exactly what you thought.  All the clues are there.  First, there’s the dog’s name, Cerberus.  It’s from Greek mythology; the three-headed, hellbound dog that guards the entrance to the underworld.  “I’m to scale now to fit your kitchen,” the dog announces, indicating that the way we see it is not necessarily the way it really looks.  Then there are the radio broadcasts – voiced by Michael Peck – that keeps trying to get the message across regarding that school shooting.  Plus, there’s the pretty blonde, Maxine (Gabrielle Van Buren) possessing what seems an unusually bad attitude who bursts into the kitchen through the back door with blood splattered across her white top.  There’s also one more surprise regarding that vibrating fridge, but to say more is to reveal way too much.

The brightly lit set from lighting designer Ellen Bone is the perfect contrast to the black theme of the play where the time is always 9:30.  When Pete Bish’s sound design explodes in loud, intimidating bursts that assaults the ears, it’s as though the whole theatre is throwing some demonic, hissy fit.  What at first seems over-the-top, including many of the hysterics from the cast, particularly Van Buren’s Maxine who often seems in danger of taking her rage and fury too far, is later revealed to have reason.  Under the circumstances, considering what we discover has happened outside of the kitchen in the real world – as opposed to this stranded moment in time, which is essentially what we’re watching – the noise, the shouting and the seemingly unreasonable frenzy Maxine unleashes on Elizabeth’s son, Bailey (Cole Brackney) all have their place.

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You can’t help but salute Stray Cat Theatre for introducing such fascinating works to the valley – without both Stray Cat and Nearly Naked Theatre, that certain edge required in any major city’s theatre community would here be missing – but that doesn’t mean to say that all audiences will take to Steve Yockey’s play.  It’s a difficult watch; its force can be more like a punch in the face than a night at the theatre, but there’s no denying the affecting power behind Yockey’s theme.  While you can admire all the performances, plus Ron May’s assured direction, the standout is Neda Tavassoli.  As the single mother trying desperately to reconnect with her ever increasingly distant son while shunning the reality of what has occurred that morning, Tavassoli’s Elizabeth breaks your heart.  There are times when you want to reach out and assure her that no matter what, she’ll be fine in the end.  Beyond a doubt, this is her play.

Pluto, with its odd, supernatural elements, its mythology, plus its pace that never sags, is 90 minutes of non-stop, compelling viewing, but that compulsion to keep watching is akin to the same compulsion that drives you to glance at the aftermath of a terrible accident you’re passing on the interstate.  You can’t help yourself; you have to look.  It’s also one of the saddest plays you’ll ever see.

For more regarding times, dates and tickets, CLICK HERE for the official Stray Cat Theatre website.

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