THEATER REVIEW: SAN FRANCISCO
Show #77: Exit, Pursued by a Bear, Crowded Fire Theatre Company, August 20.
By Sam Hurwitt
“Exit, pursued by a bear” is probably the most famous stage direction in all of drama, largely because William Shakespeare was so notoriously minimal with his instructions that such a startling direction almost out of nowhere is funny in itself.
Lauren Gunderson calling her play Exit, Pursued by a Bear is far from the only bit of meta-theatricality in the “revenge comedy” set in the North Georgia mountains now playing Boxcar Playhouse in a delightfully lively Crowded Fire Theatre Company production directed by Desdemona Chiang. After all, this is a play about putting on a play to teach a guy a lesson. Nan has duct-taped her drunk, abusive husband Kyle to a recliner and has enlisted a couple of friends to act out hurtful scenes from their marriage to teach him the error of his ways. Then they’re going leave him there with the door open for the bears to come in and get him.
The characters place cardboard title cards over the television screen, where titles sometimes pop up for the actual play that they’re in. And although the characters are alone with Kyle, he sometimes pleads to us the audience to help him escape. There’s actually a lot of direct address in the play, played as if the characters are pleading with us to understand where they’re coming from. “You understand what’s about to happen?” Nan says at one point. “It’s called a soliloquy, Kyle.”
Gunderson, a fairly recent San Franciscan originally from Georgia, has a flurry of pieces coming up at various Bay Area theater companies from Marin Theatre Company to Symmetry Theatre Company, and Bear proves an exciting introduction. The Crowded Fire production is the play’s second stop in a cross-country “rolling world premiere,” after Atlanta and before Seattle.
Emily Greene’s set transports us to a small, run-down house with a deer head on the wall of the wood-paneled living room, water damage in the corner of the yellow kitchen walls, a picture of President Carter on the wall and two different kinds of cheap whiskey atop the fridge.
The four-person cast is superb. Erin Gilley is a perky, pleasant person as Nan Carter, with a curious habit of taking any opportunity to quote her hero Jimmy Carter (no relation), but she’s also clearly at the end of her rope. It’s great to watch her going back and forth between enjoying herself and reliving the pain that brought her to these extreme measures. “I married a man I thought would be good,” she says. “He wasn’t.”
Patrick Jones seethes with rage and panic as Kyle an uncomprehending good ol’ boy who’s bound and gagged, red-faced and hyperventilating. His unconvincing attempts to appear to be a reformed, sensitive guy are all the more amusing because of how clearly forced they are, and his inane nicknames for Nan—Banana, Penguin—just drive home how clueless the guy is. But at the same time, there’s more to him deep down than just an irredeemable asshole (not to discount that he’s that certainly that as well). There’s a powerful scene in which he relives how torn up he felt after the first time he hit his wife. At one point the couple reenacts scenes from six years ago, when they were happy, and it’s great to see a spunkier, more playful Nan and a Kyle who’s still loutish but sincerely trying to be a nice guy.
Andrea Snow is awfully amusing as Nan’s new friend Sweetheart, or Peaches, a stripper and aspiring actress who feels this performance will broaden her as an performer. Dressed in a sexy-skimpy version of Kyle’s redneck clothes (costumes by Wendy Lynn), her big hair and slinky, sashaying movements are hilariously at odds with her wide-eyed enthusiasm about playing Kyle, and sometimes Nan, as her first serious dramatic role. It’s the little touches that are so clever, such as the way she moves as if giving Kyle a lap dance while she ties him to the chair—not intentionally but just out of habit.
Reggie D. White is a treat as Nan’s best friend Simon, who enters in a cheerleader outfit, and not the male variation. Simon’s very much a “sassy gay friend” character and gets a lot of funny lines, but it’s the restless energy White’s Simon exudes that make the tempestuous character so entertaining even—or perhaps especially—when he’s being petulant about having not having enough lines in Nan’s play, or her changing the plan without telling him (particularly because, as she puts it, “I added bears”). “As your best friend, I would just like to have more control over your decisions,” he says.
The three co-conspirators are like a merry mutual admiration society, despite the fact that Simon and Sweetheart haven’t met each other till now. As serious business as this revenge is, Nan and her friends blithely enact their plan with giddy enthusiasm, as if it’s the best school project ever, and take it more seriously as a performance than as something they’re actually doing either to this guy or for their friend. When things get serious and Nan starts to waver, Simon sternly cautions her not to fall into old patterns with Kyle, as if this were an intervention.
And certainly, in a way it is, although no one seriously thinks they can change Kyle. This isn’t about teaching him to be a better husband. That ship has sailed, and Nan’s out of there—and Kyle won’t be around for second chances either if the bears get him. No, this is happening no matter what Kyle does, and all Nan wants is for him to understand why he deserves it.
As much fun as the premise is, it remains vague exactly why Nan struck upon this particular plan, especially the bear part, or what it has to do with her love of Jimmy Carter. The play seems to lose its focus at the end with a multipart ending that really feels like three different endings stacked on top of each other (the last of them, at least, is by far the strongest). But Gunderson’s rich humor and irresistible characters make it easy to overlook such quibbles. Nan’s strategy for luring the bears is particularly priceless. It’s a light dish at just 80 minutes, but it proves a tantalizingly tasty one—and not just for the bears.
Exit, Pursued by Bear plays through September 17 at Boxcar Playhouse, 505 Natoma St., San Francisco. http://crowdedfire.org