BWW Review: EXIT, PURSUED BY A BEAR in New England Premiere
Exit, Pursued by a Bear
Written by Lauren Gunderson, Directed by Darren Evans; Luke J. Sutherland, Scenic Designer; Eric Propp, Costume Designer; Chris Bocchiaro, Lighting Designer; Darren Evans, Sound Designer; Ariana Gett, Stage Manager
CAST: Mary-Liz Murray, Tim Hoover, Samantha Evans, Cameron Beaty Gosselin
Performances through October 26 by Theatre on Fire at Charlestown Working Theater, 442 Bunker Hill Street, Charlestown, MA; Box Office, 866-811-4111 or www.theatreonfire.org
With a title taken from a famous Shakespearean stage direction from The Winter's Tale, one might rightfully wonder how to categorize Theatre on Fire's current offering, the first of its ninth season, at the Charlestown Working Theater. In its New England premiere, Exit, Pursued by a Bear is a "revenge comedy" that attacks the serious issue of spousal abuse from a feminist perspective, managing to be both funny and on point.
Seeking to produce plays with a strong female voice, Artistic Director Darren Evans, who also directs this production, found prolific, 31-year old playwright Lauren Gunderson to be a perfect match for the ToF aesthetic of "not cute and not boring." A man gets hit on the head with a frying pan, duct-taped to a recliner, and is forced to watch his wife and her friends reenact his mortal sins before they abandon him, baited with a lap full of honey and surrounded by packets of venison for the neighborhood bears. Mary-Liz Murray, Tim Hoover, Samantha Evans, and Cameron Beaty Gosselin, four actors making their debuts on this stage, form a cohesive quartet as the troubled couple, a stripper/aspiring actress, and a true-blue gay friend, respectively.
When the audience enters, Kyle (Hoover) is already knocked out and strapped into his chair in the middle of the room. Seating is on opposite sides of the center performance space, and Scenic Designer Luke J. Sutherland creates the feel of a small house in the North Georgia mountains with paneled walls at either end featuring a mélange of animal trophies and rifles, pistols, and hunting knives. Director Evans also handles sound design and sets the tone with country music even before the lights come up. The script calls for projected stage directions which appear from time to time throughout the show, generally preceded by an audible Ding! My guess is that Gunderson uses this ploy in keeping with the play's title, but at times it proves challenging to read the writing on the wall while live action is going on.
After years of abuse, Nan (Murray) has had her "ah ha!" moment and, with the support of Sweetheart (S. Evans) and Simon (Gosselin), gathered the courage to leave Kyle, but not without first teaching him a lesson. The women act out little skits to show Kyle exactly what wrongs he has committed to warrant the outrageous punishment he is facing. Showing works better than telling - Kyle is a little dense; with duct tape stretched across his mouth, Hoover expresses the growing desperation with his eyes and muffled grunts. Sweetheart relishes the opportunity to use her acting chops (she longs for a career in Hollywood) and displays her versatility by playing both Kyle and Nan as needed. Flamboyant Simon shows his unwavering support by wearing a girl's cheerleading outfit, complete with pom poms.
Employing speeches to the audience and flashbacks (indicated by lighting changes by designer Chris Bocchiaro), Gunderson builds the case against Kyle, but also allows him to offer a defense. In the flashbacks, Kyle gets out of his chair to woo Nan and show her that they used to have fun together when they were falling in love. Whenever her resolve appears to be weakening, Simon or Sweetheart interrupts the moment to remind her of her dreams and bring her back to the task at hand. However, these snippets of their past serve to flesh out the character of Kyle and give him additional facets besides being the abuser. Murray conveys Nan's ambivalence authentically, but the odds are stacked against reconciliation.
Gosselin and S. Evans seem to have the most fun as the wacky sidekicks, and she owes a debt to Costume Designer Eric Propp for dressing her up like Li'l Abner's Daisy Mae in a midriff-baring blouse, the shortest of short shorts, and knee-hi work boots. For all of Simon's flamboyance, Gosselin gets beneath the caricature and shows his inner strength and devotion to Nan. Playwright and director give each of the characters a chance to stand in the spotlight and each takes full advantage of their moment. Don't leave before the epilogue, for a special treat.