Friday, June 15, 2012

THE SUMMER'S TALE - 'Exit, Pursued By A Bear' by Theatre Seven of Chicago

“Exit, pursued by a bear” is perhaps the most infamous of Shakespeare’s abrupt stage directions. The Bard nor his contemporaries were particularly well-known for long-windedness between the lines, placing all of the action directly within the spoken text. However while its abbreviated brethren – “they fight," “exeunt," etc. – all have serious conceivability, “exit, pursued by a bear” was written by Shakespeare with a subversive, winking sense of humor. In truth, I’ve never seen the direction realized in a manner even remotely scary or dramatic; only laughable.

To be fair, bears were a more commonly encountered reality in Elizabethan England than they are today. Actually, among London's popular entertainments was bear-baiting, a repulsive crowd-pleaser in which a vicious pack of dogs would be set on a poor chained-up bear in a battle to the death. So, that ridiculous stage direction in “The Winter’s Tale,” on the Globe stage, was the downtrodden bear getting his bloody revenge on his oppressors.

The silly string of words also lends its terrific double-sidedness to a relatively new play of trailer park vengeance by Lauren Gunderson: “Exit, Pursued By A Bear,” which just opened at the Greenhouse Theater Center in an uppity, yet weirdly fascinating new production by Theatre Seven of Chicago.

Though not at all a prerequisite to taking away something from Gunderson's “Exit, Pursued By A Bear”, you might enhance your appreciation of the summery play by coming in knowing a little bit about “The Winter’s Tale." A favorite Shakespearean play of mine, “The Winter’s Tale” appears to be, not only the inspiration for "Exit, Pursued By A Bear"s title, but also the loosely-based source material for its plot and subject matter.

In “Winter’s Tale,” the sweet and jolly King of Sicilia, Leontes, becomes enraged with violent jealousy when he suspects his wife, the pregnant Queen Hermione, of having committed adultery with their mutual friend Polixenes, the King of Bohemia. Refusing to hear reason, the corrupted Leontes publicly and vindictively shames his wife. During the menacing public display, Hermione falls to the ground, and her conspiring friend Paulina ushers her away, announcing moments later that the Queen has sadly died.

In “Exit, Pursued By A Bear,” directed by Cassy Sanders with finely choreographed motion, but mostly absent of a meaningful center, a whole lot of similar events go down, or rather went down, as the audience experiences retrospective reenactments performed by the characters. The down-and-out Nan (Tracey Kaplan) has been in an abusive relationship with her hick husband Kyle (Ryan Hallahan), who always profusely apologizes over and over again for his transgressions, but inevitably returns to the same hurtful, destructive patterns. So, Nan and her new friend Sweetheart decide that action must be taken - with alacrity!

Love it, though I do, there is one significant facet of “The Winter’s Tale” that will forever make me cringe. In the final scene, after many joyously inconsequential Shakespearean plot developments, a statue of the believed-to-be-dead Queen Hermione is unveiled to the King – a statue perfectly aged sixteen years (Suspicious, no?). As King Leontes is overcome by emotion, he shows flowing remorse for, uh, having been the sole cause of his love’s death, and the statue ‘magically’ comes to life. The family is blissfully reunited. Finis.

So, keeping in mind my belief that Hermione was never truly dead, but rather in secret exile, the Queen’s revenge on her husband in the “Winter’s Tale” was certainly theatrical like Nan's, but pretty weak for a woman scorned.

In “Exit Pursued by A Bear,” the play begins in a tacky, lodge-like living room (designed by John Wilson) with husband Kyle submissively duct-taped to his recliner, where he has no doubt spent one too many hours guzzling down Coors Light, with Nan and her conspiring friend, Sweetheart (a nail salon-trashy Elizabeth Hope Williams), intent on teaching him a lesson. Their lesson plan consists of inundating Kyle with theatrically reenacted, significant events of the couple's relationship. That is - before they surround him with venison meat to lure in a hungry, hungry bear - reverse bear-baiting. Nan, to the beaming delight of my geeky soul, spiritually avenges the dear Hermione.

When Nan’s gay best friend, Simon (Ryan Lanning), who is also the man that Kyle believed the pregnant Nan to have slept with, arrives, the antics become too caffeinated, with the cast of young actors only occasionally discovering some much needed variance amidst their raging enthusiasm. The play’s individual brand of camp did not resonate much with me either, with much of the humor being overworked and overplayed, but the audience audibly enjoyed the unrestrained wildness of it all.

Though predominantly over-ripe, some intriguing instigation of conflict occurs when Kyle is released from his taped restraints to enact some scenes of his own. Hallahan, playing a reactionary doofus the audience can't help but condemn, and Kaplan, a smidgen too peppy in her earliest sections, return their characters to a familiar time in every romantic relationship where giddy innocence triumphs over melancholic baggage. These moments are admirably grounded and recover the play from descending entirely into circus tricks.

The circus tricks that do sneak in include the play's "Never-Ending Story" of eye-roll-inducing cinematic endings. The audience confusedly applauded at least twice before the honest-to-goodness curtain call, with my favorite of the climactic interludes being a karaoke sequence to "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now", by Starship. Strangely enough, standing on the stage singing forced the actors to simplify and have mountains of real-life, infectious fun. Despite "Exit, Pursued By A Bear"s textual jumbles and obsessive franticness, it is a pleasure to see my Hermione vindicated with such high-energy girl power.

'Exit, Pursued By A Bear' by Theatre Seven of Chicago runs at the Greenhouse Theatre Center through July 15.