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Review: ‘Exit Pluto’ at Strand Theater Company

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Continuing “The 100 Percent Season” – an entire season consisting exclusively of works written by women – Strand Theater Company  (“the Strand”) presented the World Premiere of Amy Bernstein’s Exit Pluto on Thursday. Directed by Alice Stanley, this dark, absurdist comedy is a metaphor-rich study on change or, more accurately, resistance to change.

The cast of Exit Pluto. Photo by Shealyn Jae Photography.

People used to believe that epidemics and plagues were spread by miasma, “bad air” that would bring illness to any who breathed it. Betty, the baker featured in Exit Pluto, is convinced that miasma is all around. And she’s right. Betty’s miasma is change and, like it or not, it’s everywhere. To safeguard herself, Betty has turned her bakery into a literal and figurative fortress; she runs it like a general with a solemn mandate to “preserve, protect, and defend.” Betty’s second-in-command has committed the unthinkable treachery of desertion (by dying) so Betty is forced to allow a new recruit into her stronghold. After a hazing reminiscent of Fight Club’s Project Mayhem, she accepts an apprentice – the militantly zealous Lulu. Will the bakers be able to fend off the unrelenting miasma, or has it already seeped into their bastion of safety? Can the fortress remain a time capsule of the past, or must change come to even the most stalwart neophobe?

Settled comfortably into their cozy new space in Hamilton, the Strand fosters an immersive environment for Exit Pluto from when you walk through the door. An enticing array of treats like cookies and cupcakes – all for sale, courtesy of Home Made Sweet Shop – decorate the lobby. They even sell vegan “Angelicas,” an iced cookie that features prominently in the play. Notably, there is no chocolate in Betty’s bakery. But there’s a gracious plenty of vanilla.

Vanilla adj. (və-nĭl′ə)

  1. Lacking adornments or special features, basic, simple, ordinary, standard.
  2. Prudish, unexciting, normal, conventional, boring, unadventurous.
  3. Traditional, mainstream, cisgender, heteronormative.
  4. A substance derived from vanilla beans; the flavor of Angelicas.

Janise Whelan plays the bakery owner, Betty, as equal parts Gordon Ramsey and old-school Baltimore Hon. She skillfully portrays not only Betty’s rage at the loss of her trusted assistant, the late Simone, but also her underlying fear of being alone against the miasma. Betty is so psychologically and physically stuck in the confines of her real and imaginary fortress, it’s hard to tell where she ends and the bakery begins. In interwoven scenes of reality, delusion, imagination, and memory, Whelan aptly shows Betty cycling through the emotional spectrum – angry, afraid, commanding, joyful, heartbroken, and even wistful and dreamy when remembering the outside world. It would be easy to dislike Betty, but Whelan shows her to be a person as worthy of pity as scorn.

Portraying Betty’s apprentice, Lulu, Barbara Madison Hauck is a whirlwind of energy and devotion who threatens to steal the show with every frenetic outburst. There’s a vein of desperation in Lulu’s attempts to convince Betty, and herself, that she is meant to live and work in the bakery fortress; Hauck strikes an effective balance between her character’s enthusiasm and anxiety. She also adeptly demonstrates Lulu’s evolution throughout the play. Through a series of fantastical scenes, Hauck’s Lulu examines whether her search for connection requires her to hold on to Betty’s pink baker’s apron like a shipwreck victim holds a life-preserver in a raging sea.

Betty has convinced herself that her two favorite visitors to the bakery are on her side. However, her refusal to look the future – or even the present – in the eyes has blinded her, leaving her vulnerable to those who would take advantage of her willful naiveté. A timely allegory for current affairs, she is oblivious to the fact that the customers she eagerly serves – a thief, a “Hedge Fund God,” and (ahem) a real estate developer – may, in fact, be agents of her demise. Acting against one’s self-interest is byproduct of stubbornly-held ignorance.

Jessica Kim plays Betty’s “best customer,” Noushin. People always say that playing a villain is a lot of fun; if that’s true, Kim must have had a blast developing her character. Surly and mean, Noushin is entirely unlikeable. Though Betty views her as a welcome ray of sunshine, Noushin is actually rather abusive to the baker. From her voice to her facial expressions and movements, Kim uses everything in her acting arsenal to express her character’s disdain.

A customer since he was a small child, Hector, smoothly performed by Flynn Harne, is like the son that Betty never had. Returning to his hometown mom-and-pop bakery, Hector indulges his sweet tooth and Betty’s ego. Likening Betty’s Angelica cookies to medicine and recreating, in flashback or odd reality, his first visit to the bakery, Harne’s Hector seems at once sincerely affectionate and menacingly manipulative. It’s a tricky position, but one Harne pulls off with acumen.

The cast of Exit Pluto. Photo by Shealyn Jae Photography.

Rounding out the cast is Bethany Mayo as Blossom. Without divulging too much about her enigmatic character, I can tell you that Mayo is a delight. Sexy and mysterious, Mayo’s Blossom is a key figure in the climax of the production. Mayo doesn’t appear until the second act, but having fewer lines and stage time does not diminish her impact. She makes the most of gesture; every facial expression, from her sultry eye shift to coy smile, provocatively speaks volumes.

The high caliber of the acting in Exit Pluto is matched by the talent of the fine creative team. Director Alice Stanley has guided their actors through a web of interlacing threads, following the internal logic of the often chaotic play. The audiovisual team of Lighting Designer Lana Riggins and Sound Designer Max Bent work seamlessly in tandem to indicate the transitions from reality to fantasy, delusion and memory. And Scenic/Properties Designer Kate Smith-Morse and Costume Designer Heather Johnston skillfully outfitted the stage and the players to create the bakery fortress world of this production.

In her note, playwright Amy Bernstein says:

An organism that can’t adapt to its environment can’t survive.

This truth is explored in Exit Pluto through abundant use of metaphor and allegory. Go see this brand-new play at the Strand and enjoy a story born of unrestrained imagination, with a strong message. But don’t expect Bernstein to lay it all out for you in a tidy narrative with a predictable timeline. Strand Theater Company’s Exit Pluto is more sophisticated and complex than that. It’s got layers. Like a cake.

Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Exit Pluto plays through January 29, 2017, at Strand Theater Company – 5426 Harford Road, in Baltimore MD. For tickets, call the box office at (443) 874-4917, or purchase them online.

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