ChicagolandTheaterReviews.com
ChicagolandTheaterReviews.com

   

  The Hunter and the Bear

                At the Writers Nichols Theatre

                                  
By Dan Zeff

 

Glencoe – The PigPen Theatre Company won a lot of local friends in 2013 with its production of “The Old Man and the Old Moon” at the Writers Theatre. The troupe is back at the Writers, this time in the new Nichols theater with “The Hunter and the Bear,” a further exploration of PigPen’s special hybrid brand of folk theater, music, and storytelling.

        The 2013 production relied heavily on whimsy. “The Hunter and the Bear” is made of heavier stuff, part ghost story, part suspense tale, and part psychological drama. I couldn’t follow all the narrative twists and turns of the play as it built to its stirring climax, but from moment to moment the show is 100 uninterrupted minutes of absorbing and creative theater.

        Like the 2013 production, “The Hunter and the Bear” uses song, storytelling, puppets (stick and shadow and hand-manipulated), dramatic lighting, and a remarkable skill at manufacturing scenic effects out of casual materials like a few boards, flashlights, rough fabrics, white sheets, and wooden boxes. The seven-member all-male ensemble (all returnees from 2013) again plays a small symphony of folk-oriented instruments, mostly percussion and strings, with exceptional facility.

        “The Hunter and the Bear” is set in a wilderness area in some unidentified part of the United States. Judging from the rustic costumes, the time is the late 1800’s. A man named Prescott is leading a group of five rough-hewn men in carving out a settlement in the forest to establish a base for logging (I think I got that story setup right, but maybe not.). A sixth character is a little boy named Elliott, presented as a full-length puppet convincingly operated by Ryan Melia. Elliott is the precocious son of Tobias (Ben Ferguson), one of the woodsmen. The other members of the cast, all first rate, are Alex Falberg, Curtis Gillen, Matt Nuernberger, and Arya Shahi.

Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow

  After a meandering beginning, the storyline takes hold when little Elliott disappears, presumably kidnapped by a bear roaming the wilderness. The rest of the play is devoted primarily to the despairing Tobias and his colleagues searching for the vanished boy. Gradually, the men realize that supernatural forces may be connected with Elliott’s disappearance. A mysterious man named Lewis (Dan Wechsler) stumbles into the woodsman camp. Lewis claims he is a traveling salesman but the man may be a shaman in some way involved with spooky forces in the wilderness.

        The storyline injects references to a great forest fire that devastated the area decades earlier, killing many people.  There are repeated visions of an illuminated “smoke girl,” a silent child who materializes from time to time and may be tied to the fire. It is determined that one of the men in the wilderness may, knowingly or unknowingly, is burdened with guilt for the fatal forest fire and/or Elliott’s disappearance and presumed death. Action now turns to a phony séance and a kind mass possession with the men violently thrashing about.

        I had trouble tracking the convolutions of the plot as the narrative heated up. The bogus séance seemed to serve no purpose other than adding a bit of humor to an otherwise tense story, and the mass possession looked like something out of the witch trials in “The Crucible,” only involving grown men instead of hysterical girls. Still, in the late scenes the disappearance of Elliott is tragically resolved as well as culpability for the destructive forest fire. Finally, at the end we are reminded that everything we have just seen is an exercise in mythic storytelling, inviting the audience to take what it can from the narration

        “The Hunter and the Bear” wins its spurs for the terrific ensemble acting and the fascinating physical production. The seven-member cast has been together since the company was founded by a group of freshmen at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh in 2007. After working together for 10 years, they have melded into a seamless multi talented performing troupe.

                                                           Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow

        After a meandering beginning, the storyline takes hold when little Elliott disappears, presumably kidnapped by a bear roaming the wilderness. The rest of the play is devoted primarily to the despairing Tobias and his colleagues searching for the vanished boy. Gradually, the men realize that supernatural forces may be connected with Elliott’s disappearance. A mysterious man named Lewis (Dan Wechsler) stumbles into the woodsman camp. Lewis claims he is a traveling salesman but the man may be a shaman in some way involved with spooky forces in the wilderness.

        The storyline injects references to a great forest fire that devastated the area decades earlier, killing many people.  There are repeated visions of an illuminated “smoke girl,” a silent child who materializes from time to time and may be tied to the fire. It is determined that one of the men in the wilderness may, knowingly or unknowingly, is burdened with guilt for the fatal forest fire and/or Elliott’s disappearance and presumed death. Action now turns to a phony séance and a kind mass possession with the men violently thrashing about.

        I had trouble tracking the convolutions of the plot as the narrative heated up. The bogus séance seemed to serve no purpose other than adding a bit of humor to an otherwise tense story, and the mass possession looked like something out of the witch trials in “The Crucible,” only involving grown men instead of hysterical girls. Still, in the late scenes the disappearance of Elliott is tragically resolved as well as culpability for the destructive forest fire. Finally, at the end we are reminded that everything we have just seen is an exercise in mythic storytelling, inviting the audience to take what it can from the narration

        “The Hunter and the Bear” wins its spurs for the terrific ensemble acting and the fascinating physical production. The seven-member cast has been together since the company was founded by a group of freshmen at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh in 2007. After working together for 10 years, they have melded into a seamless multi talented performing troupe.

The story for this show is much stronger than the one for the 2013 production, allowing all seven performers to deliver persuasive and powerful performances in a sequence of gritty, realistic scenes, never mind the once-upon-a-time coating of the story.

        The physical environment that envelops the narrative resides comfortably in the Nichols theater interior, including the aisles. Ramps at the back of the theater partially enclose the main acting space in the front of the stage (set design by Collette Pollard). Much of the action takes place at nighttime in the near pitch black of the haunted forest. The lighting design by Bart Cortright establishes the eerie, sometimes scary atmosphere on which the narrative is built. 

Lydia Fine makes an essential visual contribution as costume and puppet designer. The chief puppet is the figure of little Elliott but there are occasional appearances by animal and bird figures, especially a barely recognizable figure of what looks like a deer in a death agony from injuries suffered in a trap, an appearance that lasted only a few seconds but is surprisingly moving. Scott Dickens designed the sound plan, consisting of forest sounds climaxed by sinister off stage roars from the bear of the title.

The directing credits are shared by the PigPen company and Chicago director Stuart Carden, who helped shape “The Old Man and the Old Moon” three years ago. They join to combine the dramatic and theatrical elements of the show into an absorbing, sometimes intense whole. The narrative may turn erratic as the play winds down, but this presentation doesn’t require a linear flow with all questions resolved to succeed. Its ample rewards reside in the high quality of the ensemble acting and the creativity of the physical production.

“The Hunter and the Bear” runs through January 22 at the Writers Theatre Nichols theater, 325 Tudor Court. Performances are Tuesday through Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 7:30 p.m., Sunday at 2 and 6 p.m., and selected Wednesday matinees. Tickets are $35 to $80. Call 847 242 6000 or visit www.writerstheatre.org.
         The show gets a rating of 3½ stars.              

Contact Dan at:ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com

                    December 2016

Like Dan on Facebook. Become a Friend!!!!!

     http://facebook.com/ZeffDaniel

       Want To read more reviews?

          Go to TheaterinChicago

 

Print Print | Sitemap
The Play's the Thing