The Deep American South is really experiencing a whirlwind of cultural attention these days.
On television, we've got Honey Boo Boo Child showing us what life on the Southern beauty pageant circuit is really like. In theaters, we can experience community "south of the levees" in the brilliant film Beasts of the Southern Wild.
And now on stage, Exit, Pursued by a Bear is the latest creative offering by the imaginative Capital T Theatre Company, who has constructed a postmodern liberation story at the intimate Hyde Park Theatre. Playwright Lauren Gunderson shows us what an emerging feminist might look like in the last great regional holdout against progressive liberalism in the United States. (Texas doesn't count: we're our own country.)
For those not familiar, the title of the play is a reference to a startling stage direction in William Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale, where a man is in fact pursued by a bear and brutally mauled while a friend narrates the action. The connection, of course, is quite literal.
In a wood-paneled one bedroom house in Georgia, an enlightened Nan (played by the perfectly wide-eyed Molly Karrasch) has conspired with her two best friends — a stripper with lofty acting dreams and the gayest man in the world — to duct tape her abusive husband Kyle (Joey Hood) to a chair, surround him with deer meat and honey, and leave him to be eaten by black bears.
Before that can happen, however, Nan and her accomplices choose to justify their extreme behavior through a dramatic re-enactment of the events that led up to this fateful moment, up to and including the final soliloquy of the show's single audience member, Kyle, who is also the catalyst for its performance.
Gunderson's brilliant supporting characters, Sweetheart (the stripper) and Simon (the gayest man in the world), are given plenty of moments to shine in their delightfully over-the-top support for their more innocent friend. Their flamboyant coaxing methods progress the plot when it would otherwise stagnate.
As Sweetheart, Indigo Rael steals maybe too much of the spotlight with her perfect set of abs and daisy dukes, distracting us from her impressively open-mouthed performance as a clueless aspiring actress. Meanwhile, Stephen Mercantel has the best lines of the play, even if he chews on them a bit too much at times.
It is Karrasch and Hood, however, that serve as the anchors for the show, making you question whether reconciliation is or should be an option for Nan and Kyle. Hood is literally held in place center stage for 90 percent of the show, but he makes tremendous headway in the moments he is given to speak to show his double-edged Southern charm.
Karrasch just wrapped up a run at Hyde Park Theatre playing a similar "emerging awareness" storyline in Hyde Park Theatre's Tigers Be Still on this same single-room stage. As to which role you'll enjoy seeing her do more, you will likely agree that her extended run in the former mindset informs her current character's struggle that much further.
Exit, Pursued by a Bear is an ambitious project for the playwright, who cleverly reveals the characters' motivations using postmodern theater techniques like breaking the fourth wall, creative use of flashbacks and juxtaposing classic and modern literature. A stripper is effortlessly reciting Shakespeare and a vet tech is applying the principals of Jimmy Carter's presidential platform to her own marriage contract negotiation.
While, on the whole, it can prove a bit difficult to imagine this cast of characters using Gunderson's sophisticated vocabulary, these disparities are largely smoothed over thanks to the enthusiastic approach of the actors, who commit fully to the nouveau Southern charm of their empathetic characters.
Never bogged down by melodrama, the dramatic approach, the hilarious one-liners and the appropriately modern setting give the age-old story of a houswife's awakening a fresh new Southern spin.
Maybe the Deep South will be the hotbed of an American Renaissance and we can finally stop seeing people catfish hunting with their arms.