Exit Pluto – Trick or Sweet
A REVIEW BY THE BAD ORACLE
(This is The Bad Oracle’s “staff pass” disclosure: someone involved in this production is a member of the staff of The Bad Oracle. The individual did not write or participate in writing this review. This is an exception to our usual disclaimer(s), which is why it is here.)
In 2012, Masterpiece Cake Shop owner Jack Phillips, citing his religious beliefs, showed a gay couple the door after they came in for a wedding cake, and was promptly sued for denying service based on sexual orientation. A year later, Aaron and Melissa Klein, co-owners of the now-closed Sweet Cakes by Melissa shop in Gresham, Ore., also refused to bake a cake for a gay couple (the Kleins paid dearly for their bigotry, too – $135,000 in damages dearly). Amy Bernstein’s Exit Pluto, currently playing at The Strand, is an attempt to address this fucked up, close-minded, self-important behavior. How does one become so insular and afraid that they truly believe that love is evil? That an overpriced pastry could possibly be the road to hell?
Betty (Janise Whelan) is a baker. At first glance, she looks like any baker should look: warm, welcoming, holding a bag of frosting. But Betty, under her sugarcoated smile, is mean, and pathologically resistant to change. She has literally closed herself within a fortress of pink rosettes, fearing the outside world with a passion. Even her sycophantic assistant, Lulu (Barbara Madison Hauck) is cause for suspicion, coming as she does from “out there”,”the miasma”, and Betty makes her go through all kinds of humiliating exercises to prove her undying devotion to fondant, crumb, apple pie, xenophobia, and Betty. Not that Betty’s customers are any nicer. There’s the grumbling Noushin (Jessica Kim), whose apparent fragility doesn’t stop her from heaping abuse after abuse on Betty’s head. And then there’s Hector (Flynn Harne), who has been coming to the shop since he was a boy, but to Betty’s shock and chagrin, seems to have turned into a man. It isn’t until the appearance of Blossom (Bethany Mayo, in a part I would not dream of spoiling) that Betty’s castle of panic seems about to crumble under the sheer weight of the queen’s refusal to adapt.
Bernstein writes in an interesting magical realistic way; the universe presented is almost like ours, but not quite. We are aware that the rules are different. She utilizes a unique dream space that overlaps reality and fantasy in gentle folds that envelope until they almost suffocate. I enjoyed that she took a setting that is usually shorthanded to “quirky” or “lovable” (I mean, there are cookies there, for Christ’s sake) and made it this sinister, weird bunker. Unfortunately, the characters are so unpleasant, so fast, that I had a hard time connecting with them early on, and by the time I was supposed to care about at least some of them, I didn’t. Also, this is one of those plays that, if it wasn’t for the note in the program, I would have no idea what the fuck the real world relationship was supposed to be, and, after I did read it, I felt the metaphor became a tad heavy handed.
Still, though, director Alice Stanley makes the most of the style, and captains this thing with verve and humor. I always admire a director who isn’t afraid to go dark when needed, and it was definitely needed here (I usually like Stanley’s take, both as a writer and director, on this type of work – Pluto puts me in mind of Stanley’s own Empty, which played at Interrobang in 2016.) Whelan keeps the narrative moving, even when her dialogue becomes rather repetitive, and finds some sticky layers in what could have been a super one-note character. She speaks quickly, desperately, graspingly. She also does this thing where she makes her sweet face sort of twist around with hatred and fear that is truly astonishing in it’s effectiveness. It’s like going to get a candy out of a pretty bowl and finding a coiled up snake inside. Barbara Madison Hauck is fascinating as the far-too-eager-to please Lulu. She’s a bundle of forced cheer and good intentions, even when she’s being used as a chair (yes). Her journey is basically the only one taken in the play, and it’s worth it. Kim is cutting, selfish and greedy as the dastardly Noushin, and Harne finds a way with the tricky character of Hector – boyish and impatient one minute, full of sneaky capitalist intent the next. Mayo 100% steals the show with her late stage Blossom; she’s funny, sexy, and disruptive, my favorite part of the play.
Technically, I have to say that the show grew on me. I wasn’t terribly impressed with the set (Kate Smith-Morse) at the outset, it seemed a little too sparse, in my opinion, especially for a luscious bakery environment, and the cloth covering the walls messy. But after awhile, I noticed that everything seemed to be outlined in black, sort of a like a drawing in a comic book, exaggerating simple objects to the point of unreality, so that’s groovy. Costumes by Heather Johnston serve well, especially the pink aprons and Blossom’s whole ensemble. Lights by Lana Riggins were effective and sound design by Max Bent witty.
BOTTOM LINE: Exit Pluto pushes you to confront the absurdity of inflexibility, one vanilla Anjelica at a time. If the show is a little alienating, it’s okay, because it stays intriguing to the end, courtesy good direction and strong performances. Props to The Strand, also, for their “100 Percent” season – a commitment to presenting work by women, exclusively. We need more Strand in the world, especially now. Go.
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