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Exit, Pursued by a Bear
by Lauren Gunderson
Directed by Teresa Doggett
West End Players Guild
February 9, 2019

Alex Fyles, Lexa Wroniak Photo: West End Players Guild

In a St. Louis theatre weekend that featured the opening of two shows that were on the longer side, West End Players Guild’s offering veers toward the other extreme. At approximately 75 minutes with no intermission, prolific playwright Lauren Gunderson’s Exit, Pursued By a Bear has a quick pace and quirky structure to go with that brief running time. On stage at West End’s usual venue in the basement of Union Avenue Christian Church, this play features an enthusiastic cast and a lot of broad humor, and for what is being billed as a “revenge comedy”, for the most part it’s surprisingly upbeat.

The story follows Nan Carter (Lexa Wroniak), who isn’t related to former President Jimmy Carter, but she seems to wish she was because she seems to have memorized his writings, and she quotes him a lot. Nan is married to Kyle (Alex Fyles), a somewhat stereotypical brutish redneck husband who has neglected and abused Nan for too long, and now Nan has decided to take action. The play begins with Kyle duct-taped to a chair, and with his mouth covered with tape as well. Nan, along with her new friend, stripper and aspiring actress Sweetheart (Tara Ernst), and her old friend, Simon (Ethan Isaac)–who shows up in a cheerleading uniform complete with skirt at first–has decided to act out a little play to teach Kyle a lesson. Then, as she tells Kyle many times, she plans to surround him with packages of frozen venison (from the deer that Kyle has personally poached) and honey, leaving him at the mercy of the black bears in the area. Needless to say, Kyle isn’t happy, and he tries to plead his case during the moments when Nan removes the duct tape from his mouth.

The subject matter here could easily have been turned into something much darker than how this play has turned out. In fact, I was expecting something darker and grittier, but this play leads with the comedy more than the darkness. It’s an exercise in revenge fantasy, but with a more hopeful conclusion than other playwrights may have chosen. It certainly doesn’t excuse Kyle’s brutish behavior, but the focus is much more on Nan and her own personal journey of liberation, as well as her bonds of friendship with Sweatheart and Simon, along with the ideas of “chosen family” and the importance of new friends and old. Through a clever stylized structure that makes use of a screen to project a script outline throughout the course of the story, the theatrical nature of the show itself and the actions within the story are played up. I won’t say much else about the plot, except that, true to the overall tone of the play, the conclusion tends to major on hope rather than something more on the grim side. This is all played out on an excellent, remarkably detailed set by Robert M. Kapeller, and with director Teresa Doggett’s colorful, character-appropriate costumes, along with memorable projections by Michael B. Perkins, excellent lighting by Amy Ruprecht and equally excellent sound by Kareem Deanes.

Although there is a bit of stereotyping, the characters are quirky and interesting, for the most part, and the performances are strong, with Ernst and Isaac almost stealing the show in their roles, which are more broadly comedic than those of Nan and Kyle. Wroniak and Fyles, for their parts, are also strong, with Fyles managing to bring more than one dimension out of Kyle, and Wroniak presenting Nan’s case in a relatable way that’s sure to make the audience root for her. The ensemble chemistry is great as well, especially between Wroniak, Ernst, and Isaac.

Exit, Pursued by a Bear isn’t as intense as I had been expecting. In fact, as plays about revenge go, it’s especially on the tame side. What’s here, though, is a collection of quirky characters and a message of empowerment along with, in keeping with Nan’s plan, a dose of honey. There’s little, if any, real sympathy for Kyle, but that’s part of the point. The sympathy, and the story, is with Nan and her friends. This is a short play, and not as deep as it maybe could have been, but what it does have is energy, and at WEPG, a quick pace and a great cast.

Tara Ernst, Ethan Isaac
Photo: West End Players Guild

West End Players Guild is presenting Exit, Pursued by a Bear at Union Avenue Christian Church until February 17, 2019

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Shirley Valentine
by Willy Russell
Directed by Lee Anne Mathews
Dramatic License Productions

February 28, 2014

Teresa Doggett Photo by John Lamb  Dramatic License Productions

Teresa Doggett
Photo by John Lamb
Dramatic License Productions

Teresa Doggett is Shirley Valentine.  In Dramatic License Productions’ current presentation of Willy Russell’s one-woman comedy-drama, Doggett is the undisputed star. She takes a role made famous in the 1980’s by Pauline Collins and makes it her own in a fully committed, confident performance that is the centerpiece of this engaging production.

Shirley Valentine Bradshaw (Doggett) is a working class housewife in 1980’s Liverpool, England.  Having married and had children at a young age, Shirley has spent much of her adult life at home raising her kids and looking after her demanding husband. Now, at 42, she is starting to wonder if life has passed her by.  When a friend invites her to join her on a vacation to Greece, Shirley is forced to confront her regrets and make a decision, and the results of that choice have profound effects on her life and her very perception of herself and those around her.  

Russell’s play is very much of its time, with a lot of the humor and drama revolving around the predicament of middle-aged women in England at the time.  Some of the material has dated to the point where it really can’t be updated and it needs to be treated as a period piece, but it works very well as such.  What the play absolutely demands, though, is a dynamic actress in the role of Shirley, and this production delivers that in Teresa Doggett.

Doggett brings Shirley to life with all her humor, warmth and complexity.  The wonder of this performance is that Shirley is such a multi-faceted character, and Doggett’s energy portrays all those facets to the fullest.  Shirley is an engaging personality, warmly greeting the audience (and the wall of her kitchen, which she frequently addresses) and seemingly cheerful about the day as we first meet her and she recounts stories of her kids and her reflections on changing attitudes in the world toward women, aging, sex and other issues.  She’s full of broad humor and an enthusiastic storyteller. As the performance continues, however, we begin to see Shirley’s dissatisfaction and regret, about her family’s, and  society’s, expectations of her in contrast to her own hopes and dreams from when she was a young, energetic teenager before her marriage.  She’s faced with an identity crisis between Shirley Bradshaw, the worn-out housewife, and Shirley Valentine–the young, free-spirited person that she used to be and wishes she can be again.

Doggett’s strengths are her great energy and engaging characterization as she brings the audience into Shirley’s world so completely, and takes us along on her journey of self-discovery. Her Liverpool accent, while not perfect, is consistent  and Shirley’s big personality is fully realized. Also, even though this is a one-woman show, it’s not exactly a one-character show, as Doggett portrays the various people in Shirley’s life as she describes them. That’s another great aspect of this performance, in that all these characters, from Shirley’s husband and kids to her various friends and people she meets on her trip to Greece, are fully realized. Doggett adjusts her voice and mannerisms accordingly as Shirley tells her story, and even though Shirley is the only character who actually appears on stage, we are allowed to really “meet” these other people, as well.  

This is a show very much of its era, and the time and place are set well by Doggett’s performance as well as her costumes and the sets by Matthew Stuckel.  We see the very realistic interior of Shirley’s kitchen in the first act, as well as the exotic Greek villa of the second act, and the 1980’s music that plays before the performance also helps to set the mood.   The only real misstep was a somewhat clumsily-executed scene change in the middle of act one that made many in the audience wonder if it was intermission. The performance recovered very well after that, though, and Doggett’s determined Shirley brought us back into the story very quickly.

had never seen this play before, but  I remember hearing about the celebrated performance of Pauline Collins in the London and Broadway productions  in the late 1980’s, and also in the subsequent film.  It also became something of a cultural touchstone for middle-aged women at the time. I was a teenager then, but now I’m closer to the protagonist’s age, and I think watching the show is probably a different experience now than it would have been when it was first produced. The perception of age and the roles of women in society have changed significantly in the last 25 years, to the point where Shirley’s situation seems like it would have happened to someone at least ten years older in today’s world.  Still, it’s a fascinating character study and a portrait of a time and place that’s valuable to look back on, and this production provides that and, in Teresa Doggett’s confident and remarkable performance, something to celebrate.

Teresa Doggett Photo by John Lamb Dramatic License Productions

Teresa Doggett
Photo by John Lamb
Dramatic License Productions

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