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Thursday, December 14

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Theater Thu Jun 14 2012

Exit, Pursued by a Bear is Surprisingly Squirm-Free

ExitBear-1.jpg

(left to right) Ryan Lanning, Elizabeth Hope Williams, Ryan Hallahan and Tracey Kaplan in Theatre Seven of Chicago's production of Exit, Pursued by a Bear by Lauren Gunderson, directed by Cassy Sanders. Photo by Amanda Clifford.

Only the truly gifted can successfully make a hamburger from a societal sacred cow -- think Parker & Stone taking the most delicate of subjects, once relegated to tearjerker morality plays, and throwing it into the "South Park" blender. Remember Eric Cartman's afternoon adventure as special guest at the NAMBLA convention? The scene in the movie The Other Guys in which comedic actor Steve Coogan's sleazy hedge fund manager gets caught by police officers Farrell and Walberg (very) briefly watching kiddie porn on his laptop? Yep, grizzly topics, and the most talented staff has to perform a creative smash-and-grab -- get in, make the joke, and get out of Dodge, and fast. If you've got to stop and give the audience stage directions, well, the battle and the war hit the lost bin. I'll admit I wanted to see Exit, Pursued by a Bear, to see how long I could remain squirm-free in the seventy-five minute performance time.

Playwright Lauren Gunderson picks up this gauntlet with Exit, Pursued by a Bear, and along with precision-timed direction of Casey Sanders finds its way to consistently enjoyable humor in what has got to be the last sacred cow in popular culture -- wife beating. It's a Sisyphean subject to tackle, even when the battered wife gets her proper revenge on the battering husband. The Dixie Chicks attempted the same fete a decade ago with "Goodbye Earl" -- about a man who meets his maker at the hands of his battered wife and her vengeful sisters -- with mixed results. Even Dennis Franz's comical turn as ill-fated Earl in the music video couldn't keep the creepy feeling from mixing in with the laughter, yet Gunderson, Sanders and Theater Seven's ensemble takes one part Little Miss Firecracker and another part The Burning Bed, and deliver the comedy.

Nan Carter (Tracey Kaplan) is the lost hope of the Seventies. Nan loves her childhood best friend Simon Beaufort (Ryan Lanning), her new best friend Sweetheart (Elizabeth Hope Williams), Jesus, and the 39th president, Jimmy Carter. Nan quotes President Carter from morning to night, finding comfort in his 35 year old speeches, especially the speeches about the evils of aggression and injustice. She tells Simons that Jesus loves him more than He loves anyone else because Simon lives his life openly as a gay man (who dresses up in his high school cheerleader uniform) and being true to himself. Her new friend of one smith, Sweetheart fits into Nan's life plan perfectly, because Sweetheart loves and quotes Shakespeare as much as Nan loves and quotes Jimmy Carter. Sweetheart is a stripper who loves Nan because Nan doesn't judge or hate Sweetheart's career choices, including Sweetheart's burning desire to move to L.A. and pursue an acting career. And it's Nan who gives Sweetheart her first big role -- to act out the part of Kyle Carter (Ryan Hallahan) in a series of vignettes staged in the Carter living room, where Kyle sits gagged and duck-taped into his Lazy Boy, slowly realizing that Nan has planned his murder -- not by human hands, but by sprinkling meat around Kyle's chair, leaving the sliding doors that separate their indoors from the Appalachian mountains, and letting the brown bears come into the house, hopefully eating Kyle along with the store-bought meat.

But first Kyle must, uh, bear witness to his past physical and domestic torture of Nan. With Sweetheart playing "Kyle," the two women act out a series of skits with Little Rascals hey-gang-let's-put-on-a-show! enthusiasm. When Simon shows up to help pack up Nan's belongings and set the dinner table, also known as Kyle's death scene, it finally dawns on Kyle that Nan is serious about doing away with him, and is as committed to having him eaten by bears as she was to staying with Kyle through all of the beatings, disappointments and humiliations.

Kyle insists that he be given the chance to fight for his marriage and his life, and when Simon and Sweetheart release him from his chains of duck tape, he charms Nan with memories of their early courtship and engagement. It almost works, until Simon feeds Nan a few scoops of peach ice cream to combat her "lightheadedness," for Simon and Sweetheart see the Sunset Boulevard in their very near future, and the reveal of Nan's pregnancy makes Nan's friends all the more determined to make Nan stick to the plan.
Kyle is a man of pig-headed stubbornness, the kind that when at death's door, decides it's better to die standing than on one's knees; he goes to war with his captors and uses words for ammo. When he's done spilling out right-wing venom that would make Limbaugh blush, his accepts his fate with dignity, as Nan forces Kyle to perform a soliloquy on the first time he hit her. It is after his last "performance" that Kyle realizes he's on "stage" because of choices solely made. Nan and friends pack up, take off for LA, and leave Kyle for bear bait. But Nan -- filled with hope from a time past and a bright future where she'll raise what she knows to be her baby boy into a "well built feminist man"-- leaves Kyle a lifeline, a cell phone to call 911.

Exit, Pursued by a Bear definitely finds its way as a comedy with dramatic undercurrent. Nan is a woman on the verge -- of something great, and Tracey Kaplan valiantly portrays Nan as that 'there's good in everybody' spirit that hoping against hoping comes as second nature; and even when all hope is lost, still searches for a lifeline because she knows that where there is life, there can always be something to hope for... dare I say "change"? Elizabeth Hope Williams could have seriously made a mess of Sweetheart -- a GED-having stripper on the outskirts of town, Shakespeare-quoting mountain gal; instead she gives us a young woman who shows us that a dream is just the blueprint of grand plans, and Williams' Sweetheart nicely compliments Kaplan's Nan. Ryan Hallahan and Ryan Lanning deliver solid and believable performances -- I couldn't wait for Kyle to meet his promised grizzly end and I had no problem accepting Simon as Nan's fiercely loyal friend willing to change his grand dreams and share his friendship , all for his beloved Nan.

Exit, Pursued by a Bear, is about lost and found wishes, reinvention and loyalty as fierce as it is comfortable; it's 75-minutes is 100% entertainment and 100% squirm-free.

Exit, Pursued by a Bear, by Theatre Seven of Chicago, runs through June 15 at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave. More info here.

 
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