Opening Nights: Exit, Pursued by a Bear

Redneck misery, inspired by Shakespeare.

Plays within plays are usually designed to make somebody see the error of his or her ways. As Hamlet stages the pantomime to guilt Gertrude and Claudius about their crime, Nan (Sara Coates), the oppressed heroine of Lauren Gunderson's new comedy, orchestrates similar misery for her abusive redneck husband Kyle (Jonah Von Spreecken), forcing him to watch her drama-smitten friends re-enact the couple's troubled history. Though in outline this has the emotional nuance of a Tom and Jerry cartoon, under Keri Healey's elastic direction Exit does manage enchantment, recalling Shakespeare's bizarre late romance plays (the title comes from The Winter's Tale). Despite Nan's tediously newfound feminist voice (credited to de Beauvoir and Austen), some one-liners shine through.

The cast works magic on the bumpkin stereotypes and improbable theater in-jokes. Coates' energetic intelligence keeps us in her corner despite lines like "I've seen Thelma and Louise, so I know I have choices." As Nan's gay BFF Simon, Kyle James Traver curtly juggles bromides about following your dreams with meatier insights like "Marriage is supposed to be annoying, not painful." Nan's other BFF, Sweetheart (Hannah Mootz, decorated by Megan Gurdine with a Palin hair bump and tight down vest), breezily asserts they're like a bunch of Brecht scholars (breaking the fourth wall and all). It's a boast that Josh Randall humors with broadly theatrical lighting. Given only one note to whimper (angry red-state bozo duct-taped to a chair), Von Spreecken can't do much to humanize Kyle. It's hardly a fair fight.

Audio-visual cues pitch back to the '70s, when Nan's hero and father figure, Jimmy Carter, laments the nation's "crisis of confidence," which vaguely parallels Nan's. Then Simon and Sweetheart imagine the Susan Boyle "I Dreamed a Dream" fairy tale happening to them. In its affably condescending way, Gunderson's play suggests that it might. Meanwhile, Kyle will either be bear food or watching SportsCenter, unmoved by it all.

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