Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Stray Cat Theatre

Also see Gil's reviews of Follies, My Fair Lady, Dirty Dancing, Dreamgirls, and Fools

Yolanda London, Cole Brackney and Neda Tavassoli
Steve Yockey's thought-provoking and disturbing new play Pluto is receiving an exceptional production from Stray Cat Theatre. It is a deeply sad and slightly confusing, yet well-crafted piece of drama with a superb cast that delivers an emotional punch. Pluto shows an alternate view of the victims of a specific type of horrific event that happens too often these days—school shootings—and the impact on those who are affected by it, and who are left to pick up the pieces afterwards. Not everything about Pluto is clear. You may be unsure about the meaning of specific images or events in the play, or slightly upset about some of the things that happen, but it will get you thinking, which is one of the greatest things about theatre.

To say very much about the plot or the characters risks taking away the emotional impact and joy of discovery Yockey has imbedded into his play. All you need to know is that single mother Elizabeth and her struggling college aged son Bailey try to go about the ordinary tasks of morning life in the kitchen of their house. While Elizabeth keeps claiming that she just wants today to be a normal day, it is anything but. Her watch has stopped at 9:30 am and she and Bailey are continually threatened by various people who try to get into the kitchen and radio announcements that seem to only broadcast news of a school shooting that are specifically personalized for Elizabeth. Oh, and there's that cherry blossom tree that's upside down in the room, apparently dropped, we learn, by a character we will meet later; a three-headed talking dog; and a refrigerator that has a problem standing still. While those items seem confusing, pay attention as Yockey slowly finds a way to connect them all. Though, to be honest, I'm still uncertain why a certain character is dressed in a deep sea diving outfit.

Neda Tavassoli and Cole Brackney are outstanding as Elizabeth and Bailey. While their mother and son conversations, full of confrontational tones that show neither are the best at communicating, are well scripted by Yockey and delivered in a realistic tone by Tavassoli and Brackney, it is in the monologues that their acting abilities are stretched and they both exceed expectations. When you start to understand exactly what is going on in the plot, you'll see how the combination of Yockey's words and the skill, range and emotion Tavassoli and Brackney bring to their portrayals makes us care deeply for these characters and understand their pain. While Brackney is excellent, it is Tavassoli who creates a character so raw, emotional, and on the edge that you will most likely never see specific secondary victims of violence in the same way again.

Yolanda London brings a certain amount of care and understanding to the talking three-headed dog Cerberus. And, yes, that is the same name as the mythical creature who guards the entrance to the underworld, so there's another clue as to what the play is about. London doesn't overdo the dog-like mannerisms to make the part a caricature; instead she achieves an almost pseudo-therapist tone in her line delivery that makes Cerberus a calming and soothing presence. And that tone, when compared to various outbursts—from the other characters; the sudden, abrasive sound effects; loud gun shots; and lighting effects—is a most welcome addition. As Maxine, a school friend of Bailey's, Gabrielle Van Buren is the epitome of the bossy mean girl who goes on a rampage of epic proportions when she doesn't get her way. It seems like a one-note performance until the events of the plot are clear, and then it is evident how spot on Van Buren is in bringing this character to life.

The final character in the play—and I guess this is technically a spoiler, though the character name is listed in the program—is Death. Like London, Michael Peck has a calming presence that helps in his dealings with the other characters and a straightforward demeanor that he uses to make just talking about death seem completely normal.

Director Ron May allows the pace to flow effectively, so the revelations come naturally yet still pack a punch. He also gets performances from his actors that are smart, realistic, and effective in never threatening to take over the emotional impact of the story. Erick Beeck's lifelike kitchen set brings a normalcy to the play as does Danny Chihuahua's character appropriate costumes. Ellen Bone's lighting and Pete Bish's sound effects combine to create some vivid stage images.

Although it has tender performances, clear direction, and well-paced revelations, Pluto at Stray Cat may not be for everyone due to the subject matter. For anyone who wants to experience a thought-provoking play that makes you ponder and question your preconceived notions about gun violence, Pluto is highly recommended.

Pluto at the Stray Cat Theatre runs through March 7th, 2015, with performances at the Tempe Performing Arts Center, 132 E. 6th Street in Tempe. Tickets can be ordered by calling 480 227-1766 or at

Director: Ron May
Production Stage Manager: Amanda Keegan
Assistant Stage Manager: Mychal Anaya
Scenic Design: Eric Beeck
Technical Director: Chase Budden
Costume Design: Danny Chihuahua
Property Design: Michael Peck
Lighting Design: Ellen Bone
Sound Engineer: Pete Bish
Blood Master: Joanne Gregg
Sound Board Operator: Connor Imhoff

Cast :
Elizabeth Miller: Neda Tavassoli
Bailey Miller: Cole Brackney
Maxine Sailors: Gabrielle Van Buren
Cerberus: Yolanda London
Radio Voice/Death: Michael Peck

Photo: John Groseclose / Stray Cat Theatre

--Gil Benbrook

Also see the Current Theatre Season Calendar for Phoenix