If you’re going to have the guts to name your play after one of Shakespeare’s most famous stage directions, then you better deliver the goods on something that’s both referential and original. Lauren Gunderson has accomplished this with her dark comedy Exit, Pursued by a Bear, having its regional premiere at Circle Theatre.
The stage direction comes from one of the Bard’s late plays, The Winter’s Tale, which, oddly enough, is having quite the year in Texas — Fort Worth’s Stolen Shakespeare Guild, Kilgore’s Texas Shakespeare Festival and Austin Shakespeare Festival have produced it this year, and Shakespeare Dallas does it next month.
Set on the opposite of winter — July 4 — in the north Georgia mountains, Exit is a present-day tale of Nan (Taylor Staniforth), who is so fed up with her no-good husband, Kyle (Duke Anderson), that she has hit him on the head with a skillet and taped him to a ratty La-Z-Boy. Her accomplices are her new aspiring-actress friend Sweetheart (Kristi Mills) and her longtime gay pal Simon (Jerry Downey).
On the surface, the theatrical trick is that poor Kyle has to stay taped to his chair for almost the entire 80 minutes (no intermission). But Gunderson’s bigger gambit is that she references not only The Winter’s Tale but other Shakespeare devices in clever ways.
Bear is both tragedy and comedy, and it manages to work in a play-within-a-play, a child whose future is in question and a bit of gender-bending, as Simon shows up in a woman’s cheerleading outfit. Sweetheart has introduced Nan to Shakespeare’s complete works, and Nan calling Kyle “a mean, jealous king” is a direct reference to Tale’s Leontes.
Whereas the Willy Shakes work can be difficult to pace, director Krista Scott keeps it playful and brisk here. Kyle can’t get up, but he can move. Anderson pulls off the feat of being threatening and imposing even as he’s stuck.
Downey runs with the character of a young gay man eager to leave his small town behind; he’s delightfully Glee-full, as if he busted down the closet door and sprinted down the hall, out the front door and into the neighbor’s house.
Mills captures the essence of the overconfident tomboy-next-door who just happens to strip for extra cash. Like Simon, she has big dreams of avoiding the stasis her life could be mired in if she stays here.
Nan is the equivalent of the Shakespeare play’s queen, Hermione, and while you might not get past the sympathy stage for that character, Nan is worth rooting for, even as she starts to doubt her plan. (Yes, real bears are involved.)
Staniforth hits all the emotional layers, and like the rest of her cast, attacks Gunderson’s comedy head-on. Clare Floyd DeVries’ set and Drenda Lewis’ costumes evoke the geography, class and characters perfectly.
Considering that the playwright named her work after a famous stage direction, this play’s stage directions are part of the setup here, moving it into the meta-theatrical realm (there is some fourth-wall breaking). Thus, it highlights something we all do in everyday life, whether or not we admit it. Who doesn’t act out scenes from the past, sometimes wishing it had gone differently, and of the future, rehearsing for how it should ideally go. Even though we’re the star — not to mention the director and designer — in each of our own little dramas, the supporting cast plays an important role in shaping the story and outcome.
In that way, the boisterously funny Exit, Pursued by a Bear reminds of one of Shakespeare’s famous lines from another play. Yes, all the world’s a stage.