Play Review: Hopewell Show Is Very ‘Bearable’

By J.E. Ballantyne Jr.

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Nan Carter is about to tape her abusive husband to a chair in a remote mountain cabin, and reenact moments from their painful marriage. Her denouement being that she will leave him for the bears to eat.

It’s the premise of the dark and at the same time funny play “Exit, Pursued by a Bear” by Lauren Gunderson, which opened Friday at the Hopewell Theatre to a small but appreciative audience.

The Hopewell prides itself on doing things that are a bit different. This is not “The Odd Couple” but at the same time it isn’t “Extremities” either. The small ensemble cast plays many roles even though those roles only comprise four people.

Celena Pollock Coven plays a strong and determined Nan Carter. Carter has endured years of abusive behavior by husband, Kyle, played by Nick Mulichak. She figures that the best way to get her revenge is to immobilize Kyle in a chair with duct tape and present those unpleasant moments by acting them out with two friends – a sort of morbid and sordid, “This Is Your Life.”

Coven is relentless in her determination to get Carter’s justice for the pain she has suffered. She runs the gamut in emotions. Her energy and zeal at the play’s opening communicates Carter’s years of holding in any retribution to Kyle’s actions. The time is now, and Coven goes full steam with the character.

But things change, as Kyle pleads for his life. He becomes repentant and apologizes for whatever it was that he did – like he is clueless. Coven’s emotional change is well done. Is Carter reconsidering her plan? Is she feeling remorse for her intentions? Her emotional travel connects with the audience very well. Or, is Kyle just trying to lie his way out of a death sentence?

There are times when Coven breaks the fourth wall and talks directly to the audience thus pulling them into the cabin as participants in her scenario. But Coven makes sure that Carter is not all murder and mayhem. There is a great comedy side to the character and Coven rides the waves with it quite well. She solidly provides the pin around which the rest of the play turns.

As mentioned earlier, Nick Mulichak is the redneckish Kyle. As far as blocking, he has the easiest role in the show – he spends most of the show taped to an easy chair with duct tape over his mouth. But Mulichak has plenty to say as Kyle whether the audience can understand him or not.

Mulichak sells the maligned character very well. Kyle goes back and forth between abusive and angry moments to moments of apology and tenderness. Mulichak negotiates those moments with stealth and slickness enabling him to bring doubt into the mind of the audience as to whether wife Nan might be making a mistake. The scene where Nan and Kyle reenact their first few dates, plus his marriage proposal, is one of the best of the evening. Plus you have to have, at least, a tad of empathy for anyone getting duct tape ripped off their mouth five or six times.

Nan’s two friends , who help her pull off her diabolical plan, are Sweetheart, a stripper and aspiring actress, played by Sydney Campbell, and Simon, played by Bobby Brown Jr.

Campbell goes all out as the ditsy air-headed actress wannabe. Her over-the-top reenactments as Kyle are high points during the evening. Her high energy is infectious as Sweetheart prances about the stage in an over-sexed version of Kyle trying desperately to assist Nan. Sweetheart is the source of much of the comedy in the piece and Campbell does not disappoint in this area. She has a strong flair for comedic theater – very versatile from her more recent role as the Beggar Woman in “Sweeney Todd.”

Bobby Brown Jr. brings a strong flair to the role of Simon. Simon is a cheerleader for Nan – literally – both in character and costume. If Campbell’s energy is infectious, then Brown’s is off the charts. He makes a splashy entrance and that splash never dies. He is a whirlwind on stage with emotions and humor that soar right out into the audience. He makes Simon a believable longtime friend to Nan and his rapid fire lines are clean and brassy.

Director Rosalyn Blystone has done a remarkable job with this small cast and this out-of-the-way show. Her attention to detail and pacing make this show fly by in record time – less than an hour and a half. Her actors are well rehearsed and the tech side goes off without a hitch. She is also responsible for the set design which is well thought out and executed. Blystone is also credited with costuming (with Regina Rees), which all functioned very well and added color to the production.

The set is accompanied by a video screen that prompts the audience with various stage directions describing what is actually happening. This is very fitting since the title of the play, “Exit, Pursued by a Bear,” is actually a stage direction appearing at the end of Act III, scene III in Shakespeare’s “A Winter’s Tale.”

“Exit, Pursued by a Bear” is a fun evening. It’s a little different and may not be everybody’s cup of tea. But it is very well done and gives the audience a chance to see something they won’t see at one of the larger community theaters in the area. It is a fast moving production so it is an early evening. Make the trip to the Hopewell if you can, but leave the kids at home.

“Exit, Pursued by a Bear” continues Dec. 9, 15, 16 at 7:30 p.m.; Dec. 17 at 2 p.m. CAUTION: Adult language.

Pictured at top: Celene Pollock Coven and Nick Mulichak in a scene from Hopewell Theatre’s production of “Exit, Pursued by a Bear.”

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