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Theater review: A weirder tale at Olympia Little Theatre

Bear bait

Strippers and gay cheerleaders and bear attacks, oh my. Photo of Jason Downer (WAH wah) courtesy Olympia Little Theatre

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Among the most notorious of all stage directions appears in the middle of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale. In Act III, Scene 3, Sicilian lord Antigonus has just delivered a longish soliloquy of 45 lines when - why the hell not, really? - the script directs him to "[Exit, pursued by a bear]." Antigonus is never seen again. So how does any company, Elizabethan or modern, realize a spectacle like that? Most likely, the Bard's original Antigonus was dispatched by a man in a bear suit, but it's hard to say because the Globe hosted bear-baiting exhibitions in which tethered bears were set upon by mastiffs.

I promise you, no animals were harmed in Olympia Little Theatre's production of playwright Lauren Gunderson's Exit, Pursued by a Bear (other than an antelope set upon by crocs in a nature video, for which life doesn't seem to be going well). The prey in this story is Kyle Carter, a short-tempered redneck who may or may not have beaten his wife, Nan. On a quest for revenge and emancipation, she recruits the help of a stripper/wannabe actor named Sweetheart (stage name "Peaches," which isn't much better) and Simon, her gay best friend, who arrives in a cheerleader's uniform. Nan's plan is to stage a reenactment of key moments with Kyle, then douse him in honey and open the door wide to Ursus americanus floridanus, a 300-pound Florida black bear.

If this strikes you as atypical fare for a senior-friendly community theater, you're not alone. It felt to me like a ballsy college production with attractive, unseasoned actors, a script that wasn't afraid to cuss or ignore the fourth wall, and abrupt devolution into karaoke - Starship, no less. Credit director Toni Holm for staging an unorthodox story, eliciting plausible performances from untrained actors, and - thanks to a swiveling recliner - keeping sight lines refreshingly clear. Nicole Galyean, last seen in OLT's reading of Neil LaBute's Reasons to be Pretty, is relatable here. The show's funnier than you might expect, and justice triumphs ... I think.

Wait - Neil LaBute? The guy who wrote Fat Pig and In the Company of Men? What kind of freak show is OLT running these days? Managing Director Kathryn Beall announced the troupe's upcoming 75th anniversary season would include both installments of Angels in America, and her patrons didn't flinch (though they saved their biggest smiles for Neil Simon's Barefoot in the Park). Is OLT getting ... dare I say it ... cool?

Kevin Gowrylow (Simon) and Katrina Groen (Sweetheart) have appealing stage presence, but Gownrylow's mushy articulation couldn't compete with overlapping dialogue or an obnoxiously buzzing speaker. Jason Downer, a late recruit as Kyle, finds amusing moments attempting to sweet-talk his way out of a bear's colorectal tract.

Carv, you ask, does a bear make an appearance? Does the Pope - well, let's not even go there.

EXIT, PURSUED BY A BEAR, 7:55 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 1:55 p.m. Sunday, through May 18, Olympia Little Theatre, 1925 Miller Ave. NE, Olympia, $8-$14, 360.786.9484

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