Wednesday, August 21, 2013
Theater review: Circle Theatre mounts a shocking and absurdly funny Exit, Pursued by a Bear
It's edgy, witty, and not suitable for everyone -- in a good way.
FORT WORTH Normally, I read various articles about a show if I am not overly familiar with the story. However, in this case, I honestly have to admit that prior to watching Exit, Pursued by a Bear, I did not research the show or try to find out what the synopsis could tell me about the play was about. Though, after watching the play and hearing multiple references to Shakespeare, I chose to do more research and found that the playwright loosely based parts of this story on Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. With a title this intriguing, I thought that it was bound to be funny. It is! The show is absurdly hilarious and even a bit shocking at times with its occasional adult language and subject matter.
The setting is in a wooded area in Georgia, the characters lower middle income with a redneck mentality. Non-derogatory in intent, this is merely a description of a segment of culture denoted by the way they dress, the phrases and language they use, their priorities or lack of priorities, and the manner in which conflicts are resolved and the goals are achieved. In fact, it brings a refreshing realism and comedy to the otherwise very serious topic of spousal emotional and physical abuse. Throw in the wit and wisdom of former President Jimmy Carter, add a stripper, a gay BFF, an under- employed mechanic with a penchant for both hunting out of season and Jack Daniels, and a wife that likes romance and Shakespeare, but doesn’t’ know how to leave an abusive situation. Mix it all together and you have a recipe for a very absurd and strangely funny show. that deals with a serious topic in a humorous manner.
This is the first play I have seen directed by veteran Circle actress Krista Scott. If this production was an indication of her insight and talent, I sincerely hope to see more of her work in the near future. Scott could have easily used a heavy hand on this script and overplayed the situations without paying attention to the delicate balance needed for the subject matter, stereotypes, language and cultural differences. She cast the show with talent that could believably be and sound redneck and that could add humor, comic timing, poignancy and drama to successfully pull off this script. Scott also took the risk and of having the actors use dialect appropriate to southern locale. Theatrical dialects or accents either work well or bomb horribly, depending on how well they are done. Fortunately in this production all of the actors were able to pull off such a believable dialect that until I met with them after the production, I thought that was the way they normally spoke.
The duo of set design by Clare Floyd DeVries and properties design by Meredith Hinton combined to create a set that looked and felt like the interior of a backwoods, weekend vacation home that someone was living in full time. The stuffed animals strategically placed around the kitchen, along with the cheap paint and veneer on the kitchen cabinet and the previously-owned furniture, made me feel like I was in that reality.
Drenda Lewis designed and used costumes to help enhance the believability of each character and scene. The costumes were time period and subculture appropriate. The combination of Simon’s cheerleading costume and Kyle’s open shirt with tank top underneath underscored the clash of values in this show.
John Leach designed and used an effective lighting scheme. The stage is small with an intimate performance space. Most of the lighting choices included blackouts, an effective projection of an outdoor scene onto the back patio, and spot lighting on certain actors at times in the combination kitchen/dining/living area. One feature that initially seemed out of place on stage in that specific setting is the use of use of video screens as message boards on the left and right sides of the stage during the production. These are used to provide digital timeline messages to the audience as well as show a short video toward the final moments of the show.
Duke Anderson was almost too believable as husband Kyle Carter. Anderson looked, sounded and acted the part to perfection. He so completely committed to this role that I could picture him in any trailer (trash) park, sitting outside a single wide with the wheels still on, in a lawn chair with a can of beer in his hand. The way Anderson consistently used his acting skills to flow in and out of a sometime charming down home boy to a selfish, self-centered bully was amazing to watch. For most of the show, Kyle is in a lazy boy chair in the center of the stage. No spoiler alert here. Anderson excelled in displaying a wide array of emotions and non-verbal communications to the other characters and the audience. Anderson has such control and understanding of his character that at times Kyle seemed like the least crazy person there.
Jerry Downey as Simon Beaufort was simply superb. The character would be very easy to over or underplay. Either would have lost the balance needed to make Beaufort equal in strength and importance to the other characters or story. Downey has the force of character, comic timing, earnestness and confidence to make him one to watch. Downey aggressively and successfully dove into his character and the commitment worked. He was always appropriately engaged in each scene and your attention to his facial and non-verbal reactions will draw you in like a magnet. His verbal sparring with Kyle showed a good connection between actors and an understanding of the subtext of the scene.
Kristi Mills as Sweetheart at times reminded me of a younger Reba McEntire. Mills gave Sweetheart a look and movement that at different times was sexy, innocent, vulnerable, experienced and naïve. Mills portrayed Sweetheart as the comic foil and a background character. I am not sure if that was an actor or director choice. Of the four characters, Sweetheart was the least intense. She did provide a more passive balance for wife Nan Carter. Mills was very enthusiastic and bubbly, and while her portrayal of Sweetheart was very likable and sweet, Mills did lack an edge to the character.
Most of the storyline revolves around the relationship between Kyle and his wife Nan Carter. Taylor Staniforth showed nice range of vulnerability and determination, albeit a little unorthodox, in the way Nan approaches her conflict with Kyle. Nan’s response to her situation made the unbelievable very funny and almost acceptable. Watching Nan and Kyle argue, fight, plead and charm each other, I could well accept I was watching a couple in a dysfunctional relationship. Staniforth’s dialogue, emotions, movement and manner made me believe Nan was truly a young woman looking for love, romance, and a stable and secure relationship, and showed me that the actress understood the conflicts. Nan’s dedication to the wit and wisdom of President Carter is a fun aspect of this character and adds to her charm. Staniforth’s ability to bring us into Nan’s world, however crazy that might be, and the fervor in which she committed demonstrated her skill.
Audience members will either really like or not like this play. It is certainly not a high brow one you might expect to see on Broadway, though you may end up seeing this play there; it is that quirky. The show contains some adult language and subject matter that might not be for everyone. But I really enjoyed the unexpectedness and shock value of the story. It is absurd enough to make you really laugh out loud. The directing is to be commended and each actor clearly enjoyed understanding and connecting with the other characters and situations. Go see this show, if for no other reason than it is different, in a good way.
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