The title of City Lights’ latest production is certainly evocative and provocative, a challenge and a lure to theatregoers to come on down and see what it’s about. This most famous of all stage directions, at least famous to those who read, see or participate in the plays of Shakespeare, can be found in the script of the Bard’s “problem play,” The Winter’s Tale, when the character Antigonus leaves an infant to die in the wilds at the behest of his King and then flees for his life pursued by…etc. What does all this have to do with a rollicking, dark comedy about an abused housewife named Nan Carter (the excellent Sara Renée Morris) living in the mountains of North Georgia? Suffice it to say that the bear looms large in the play.
When Nan is struck once again in the face by her mean, drunken husband, Kyle (charismatic Max Sorg in a cunningly nuanced performance), and driven to despair, she has had, to paraphrase Popeye, “all she can stands, ‘cuz she can’t stands n’more!” She knocks the miscreant on the head with a frying pan, binds him to his La-Z-Boy with yards of duct tape and calls for the assistance of her oldest and newest friends. Simon (Jacob Marker in an over-the-top performance), Nan’s best bud from school to the present, is flamboyantly gay and devoted to the battered woman. Stripper and wannabe actress, Sweetheart (vivacious, sexy Laura Espino), who, despite the stereotypes of her profession, proves to be adorable and loyal reminding me of Roger Rabbit’s wife Jessica who famously said, “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way.”
The play becomes a trial with reenactments of scenes from the courtship and marriage of the troubled couple. Their life together degenerates from the giddiness of new love to the grind of daily strife as Kyle adopts the patterns he learned from his father. Does all this sound grim? Well, it is, but don’t forget Will Shakespeare and the problem plays. Why problem? Because they cannot be classified into the easy categories of tragedy or comedy. And so it is with Exit, Pursued by a Bear. The show has its moments of grimness leavened by exquisite, outrageous humor.
Exit, Pursued by a Bear is another ninety-minute wonder performed without intermission. The script by accomplished San Francisco playwright Lauren Gunderson is splendid and director Steve M. Boyle keeps the action moving crisply while allowing moments of poignancy to have their full value.
The show is handsomely produced with a fine unit set by Ron Gasparinetti, lighting and projections by Nick Kumamoto and sound and music design by George Psarras. Costumes by Anna Chase aptly reinforce time, place and character.
Exit, Pursued by a Bear runs through June 14 at City Lights Theatre Company on Second Street near William in Downtown San Jose.