Forum Theatre’s ‘Pluto’ is making audiences queasy

Updated 4 p.m., March 11.

Throughout the run of Forum Theatre's "Pluto," staff have seen audience members bury their heads in their hands and refuse to look at the stage. They have seen some of them grow visibly queasy. But not until last week had the supernatural, surrealist tale about a family confronting a school shooting caused an audience member to actually vomit, an involuntary response to which Forum artistic director Michael Dove had a surprising reaction: pride.

"A play about school violence should turn your stomach," said Dove, who said he has not received any complaints about the play's violence. "As much as people start dry-heaving, they know it’s rooted in the story that we’re trying to tell. That’s the highest compliment I can imagine receiving."


Elizabeth Miller (Jennifer Mendenhall) and Bailey Miller (Mark Halpern) in the rolling world premiere of "Pluto" by Steve Yockey at Forum Theatre.

Though there are warnings posted at the Round House Silver Spring -- where Forum is in residence -- that audience members can expect to hear gunshots and see blood, Dove said the effects are deployed unexpectedly, taking cues from horror movies.

"We have lots of blood effects. There’s blood flying everywhere," Dove said. "We took stage blood and mixed it with strawberry jelly -- it has chunks. That’s just too much to take," for some members of the audience, he said. Those effects are the work of fight choreographer Casey Kaleba.

During one particularly bloody moment in the March 7 performance, Dove said his stage manager witnessed an audience member bolt from his seat. Sitting in an office, Dove heard the nearby men's bathroom door open and close, but by the time he reached the bathroom, the man had left evidence of just how intensely the scene had affected him.

It is not the first time that someone has puked in a Forum production. Dove recalled an incident last year that staff nicknamed the "Ninja Puker," during their production of "9 Circles," about a soldier on trial for war crimes. In that show, someone "threw up over the railing, and then watched the rest of the show,"  without even alerting a house manager to the mess, which was found later that evening. 

As for "Pluto," the gore isn't the only thing that makes the play hard to watch. The production features a sound effect that Dove can only describe as a noise "that sounds like it came from hell." At the advice of the playwright, Steve Yockey, it's also painfully loud.

"The producer part of my brain was like, 'We can’t put people through that,'" Dove said. Making people sick was not his goal, but had he taken it any easier on the audience, the play would not have a achieved the same level of emotional heft.

Despite the noise and gore, Dove said the fact that the play, which runs through Saturday, has produced conversations, not complaints, means he has done his job well.

"We’re not doing it for shock value. I’ve had to be pushed into these decisions -- I’m so squeamish," Dove said. "It’s a sign that people are uncomfortable, but it fits in the story."

It also indicates that he has brought back a type of theater that fewer people get a chance to experience.

"People come to me and say, 'That’s the first time I’ve been scared in a live play,'" Dove said. "We’ve started to outsource certain types of reactions to other types of entertainment and culture and art. Theater should be the most immediate ... it’s happening in the room with them."

Or in the restroom, if you're lucky.

Forum Theatre's "Pluto," through March 15 at Round House Silver Spring, 8641 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring. 

Maura Judkis covers culture, food, and the arts for the Weekend section and Going Out Guide.
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