A stage direction in Act Four of William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale famously reads, “Exit, pursued by a bear.” Tough to pull off, unless you’re staging an outdoor drama and have one very agreeable trained bear.
Playwright Lauren Gunderson borrows that funny-yet-dangerous image for the title of her Southern Gothic revenge comedy, a giggle of a play laced with more sobering themes.
Artistic director Louis Tyrrell is launching his first full season at Delray Beach’s cozy Theatre at Arts Garage with Gunderson’s play. Though the production values are modest, the show is acted and directed in a way that will remind fans of the defunct Florida Stage of Tyrrell’s fine work there. For him, a playwright’s distinctive voice matters, and so does the notion that theater – even theater as raucous as Exit, Pursued by a Bear – should get an audience thinking.
The revenge in Exit is being exacted by Nan Carter (Niki Fridh), an abused housewife who lives with her deer-hunting hubby Kyle (David Nail) in the sort of Georgia mountain area where bears roam. Nan has enlisted the help of two pals, her gay best bud Simon (David Hemphill) and actress wannabe Sweetheart (Lindsey Forgey), a curvaceous gal who is making ends meet before her big break by working as a stripper. Together, the three plan to put on a show to demonstrate exactly how deficient Kyle has been in the marital department.
At this point you might be thinking, “Ok, but will a guy who routinely smacks his wife sit still for that?” Nan has that covered. For nearly the entire length of the 75-minute play, Kyle sits duct-taped to a plaid recliner, his protests reduced to muffled squeals by another piece of tape. After she and Sunshine reenact scenes from a marriage gone wrong (cheered on by Simon, who really was a cheerleader and has the pom poms to prove it), they intend to make their exit, leaving Kyle in his duct-tape cocoon surrounded by defrosting deer meat, so that he’ll become the main course in a bear buffet.
Hilarious though much of the script is, Exit, Pursued by a Bear does address spousal abuse: the apologetic husband who promises never to hit the woman he loves again, the wife who thinks that this time he really means it, the never-ending cycle of violence. The lust for fame gets a little bit of stage time too. But mostly, Exit careens from one laugh to the next.
Fridh is sympathetic as a Jimmy Carter-loving gal who really would rather not turn her husband into bear chow. Nail, a bear of a man himself, nails the squirrely charm of a guy whose sorry-baby spiel is a string of candy-coated lies. Forgey’s would-be thespian is a scantily clad hoot. And Hemphill, who enters wearing a cheerleader’s skirt before switching to way-more-boring pants, pretty much steals the show every time he opens his mouth.
Shakespeare it isn’t. But Exit, Pursued by a Bear is a rollicking example of the kind of theater that revs Tyrrell’s creative engine. And those roars? Sound-effect bears, for sure, but also laughs from the audience.