Exit, Pursued by a Bear warehouse

Conrad Harvey plays Kyle Carter and Julie Janorschke Gawle is Nan Carter in the production of “Exit, Pursued by a Bear” at the Warehouse Performing Arts Center in Cornelius.

CORNELIUS – Wait, as you walk up to the theatre — are you sure you want to enter the Warehouse Performing Arts Center? The pathway is strewn with used-up jars of honey. Could Anne Lambert actually have engaged a real bear for her latest production, “Exit, Pursued by a Bear?” I wouldn’t put it past her. Shakespeare did it, in his time.

To make matters more mysterious — or should I say, precarious — the proscenium is all lit up when you arrive. Watch out! There’s an immobilized man strapped to his chair, silenced by a bright orange slash of tape stretched across his mouth. Struggling through muffled grunts, he attempts to entreat someone from the audience to let him loose.

The play hasn’t even begun!

“Exit, Pursued by a Bear,” Lambert’s current Charlotte Off-Broadway production at the Warehouse, is a Southern-fried revenge comedy written by Lauren Gunderson. Talented producer-director and gifted playwright. What a pair.

Activist Gunderson, adept at inserting current satire into her witty prose, is no stranger to the theatre. An award-winning playwright, she was named the most-produced playwright in America in 2017.

Charlotte’s Lambert is no stranger to Lake Norman audiences. She has performed, directed and produced plays for the Warehouse in Cornelius and on the Davidson Community Players’ boards as well.

It’s fascinating how Gunderson intertwines Southern and Shakespearean humor and drama. Her title, “Exit, Pursued by a Bear,” is actually taken from a stage direction in Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale.” The play, Gunderson claims, “is full of contradictions and juxtapositions … love and hate, violence and justice, and bears and karaoke.”

Karaoke. That’s it! Lin-Manuel Miranda once tweeted, “You are perfectly cast in your life. And with so little rehearsal too!” Twisted around the implication of dark humor, that may be how Gunderson developed her characters.

Julie Janorschke Gawle plays Nan Carter, a distraught, abused wife who befriends a quirky actress called Sweetheart, cum-Trisha and SuperKyle, portrayed by Julia Benfield.

Conrad Harvey plays Kyle Carter, the body tied to the chair, whom we discover, as the script unfolds, is a classic MCP (Male Chauvinist Pig).

Enter Nan’s longtime friend Simon, portrayed by Ryan Stamey, and things begin to rattle. Shaking a red-and-white pom-pom, Simon actually bounces on stage, poured into a cheerleader’s short-skirted outfit from their alma mater somewhere in the hills of Georgia. His performance is hysterical. Stamey really is superb.

They’re all terrific. As Sweetheart, Benfield’s grossly exaggerated multi-personality portrayals – depending on the individual she’s impersonating – deserve an award. A talented actress oozing with an array of dramatic interpretations for each scenario. Wow!

As Nan, who has a penchant for quoting President Jimmy Carter, Gawle delivers a heartfelt, comedic, wrenching, doubtful, empathetic, funny, loving, even angry portrayal of her maligned and confused character. Bravo!

Harvey’s speechless role is convincing even as he wriggles around in the chair. Oh, my gosh, when his mouth is briefly unstriped, he almost oinks like a pig. “I’d rather have a bear in my lap than a woman’s who’s pregnant,” he sneers. No wonder he’s being surrounded with frozen venison and sauced up with enough honey to entice a prowling black bear.

Around Lake Norman, homegrown community theatre is an area affair attested by Lambert’s well-appointed stage design. The veritable life-like stone fireplace designed by KC Roberge is bound to make the rounds among other area troupes over time. It’s gorgeous. KC also made a forest-scene painting for the cabin’s back-wall flat, created by Davidson Community Players’ Roger Watson.

“Exit, Pursued by a Bear’s” director, Anne Lambert, deserves every bit of the enthusiastic applause full-house audiences are delivering each night.

The show continues in production over the next two weekends, Thursday through Sunday, with an intriguing twist at the end on Feb. 21, 22 and 23. Trained American Sign Language interpreters will shadow the actors for the benefit of hearing-impaired members of the audience. Welcome!

The show’s au-current entertaining satire is well worth a 90-minute seat at the Warehouse PAC.

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