This was a weird play, and I feel okay saying that because even the press release pronounces, “PLUTO is dynamic, simple, and strange.” And I liked the weirder bits a lot. On the night I attended PLUTO (no longer a play), running through June 3 at The Brick, at the appointed time, the audience was invited to wander into the playing space, naturally forming clusters around the perimeter of the room, assuming we would be standing for the duration of the show. Moments later, a whole set of hidden chairs were revealed, waiting for us all along! Seated, we were transported to the land of the strange and surprising.
In the realm of the weird, I loved Lanxing Fu drifting through the space, mysteriously revealing bits of herself to us. As the play progressed, we settle into the fact we are talking about the cosmos, about forces beyond our control, and it becomes clear Fu is orbiting along a path through the set, only stopping to accomplish the same cycle of stage business: dry brushing a brick wall, crunching chips loudly, and magically illuminating a single flickering bulb. We learn near the end of the play she is (maybe) a microbe, eternally existing on the edges of society, cleaning the debris Left by humans, lighting the way to the next moment, all of which is strange and lovely.
But as much as PLUTO fiddles with audiences’ assumptions of what a “play” is, it found itself constrained by some of the same limitations of the traditional model of a “well-written” play it was rebelling against. The meta play-within-a-play business, reviving a lost play about unicorns and wizards, fell a little flat or at least paled in comparison to the larger themes of mass extinction and the value of human life PLUTO was exploring.
If the play intended to explore the mysterious, ephemeral, supernatural cosmos, I would prefer a real mystery story, or the galaxy expanding — something huge and impossible, not our mortal struggle to craft an attention-grabbing story. As the characters strove to construct the lost dramatic arc of the original play, PLUTO suffered as a result. I also spent a distracting amount of time trying to ferret out what the extinction allegory stood for. Black men, given the repeated nostalgic references to a disappeared black brother? Theater itself?
Moreover, the emphasis on theater as a time-limited experience rather backfired, making me too conscious of the time passing. According to the conceit of the play, the characters had only one hour to make their presentation of the lost PLUTO play, and would periodically announce how much time they had left in order to speed their fellow actors. This faux rush resulted in a rather sappy take on the importance of theater, with the characters urging us to go see all the new (real) productions that had left postcards at The Brick, assuring us how vital it was to witness their ephemeral passing.
Despite my qualms, I left the theater more attuned to our mortality than I entered it. William Cook played an excellent pitifully defunct older white man desperately trying to explain his way into a legacy, and Brittany N. Williams exhibited some stunning unicorn physicality, flipping her hand-as-hoof with verve and finding a way to rhythmically strike her arm as if she were pawing at the ground. Cook teaches us that the word “planet” comes from Ancient Greek, meaning “wanderer,” and that, “Magic is a way of seeing, you can’t actually do anything with it.” PLUTO felt like it was still wandering, but it at least reminded me to take a peek at the dim Brooklyn stars on my walk to the subway.