Produced by: City Lights Theater Company
Featuring: Sara Renee Morris (Nan), Max Sorg (Kyle), Laura Espino (Sweetheart), and Jacob Marker (Simon)
Directed by: Steve M. Boyle
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
When: May 14-June 14, 2015
Where: City Lights Theater Company, 529 South Second Street, San Jose, California
Tickets: $17-$32 (discounts available). Visit cltc.org or call 408-295-4200.
and a fascination with science
The Wikipedia entry for Lauren Gunderson says "She writes about women in science and history, and comedies based on Shakespeare," which overstates and oversimplifies her impressive career to an amusing and horrifying degree.
It's true, Gunderson, who lives in San Francisco with her virologist husband, Nathan Wolfe, and their six-month-old son, Charles Isaac Gunderson Wolfe, does write a lot of plays about women in science. "Silent Sky," for instance, about astronomer Henrietta Leavitt, which TheatreWorks staged in early 2014.
And Shakespeare does play a role in Gunderson's creative life.
"Oh, they were the first real plays that I fell in love with," Gunderson explained during a recent phone interview. "They have such a diversity of style. I found they gave me permission to write a lot of different things in a lot of different ways. ...
"And, frankly, when it's about Shakespeare, when there is a thread of Shakespeare in it, people are a little more likely to go see it."
But that thread can often be quite slender, as with "Exit, Pursued By A Bear," Gunderson's popular play that opens in previews at City Lights on Thursday. It can be said that Shakespeare wrote the title, "Exit, Pursued By A Bear," because it is a stage direction in his play "The Winter's Tale."
"I also used the play's themes of an abusive husband destroying his family and kingdom, but who comes to see his horrible mistakes in the end," Gunderson said. Still, the play remains Gunderson's own.
That stage direction from "The Winter's Tale," which in the early 1620s might have included an actual bear on stage, just kind of spurred Gunderson to write something she's already wanted to write about the South, where she was born and raised.
"I am always looking to tell stories about women in ways that matter," Gunderson said. "This topic of abuse came up over and over again, from the news, from friends major issues that we are uncomfortable talking
"Also, there is the zaniness of revenge comedy. You can be a lot more truthful in comedy than you can with drama. Audiences can lean in to it. In drama, sometimes it's too much to handle. But in comedy, there is this welcoming gravity, that it is comedy, that it's not going to hurt."
Gunderson's revenge comedy opens with a man duct-taped to a chair. His wife and two of her friends have trapped him, with the intention of demonstrating to him what an abusive, terrible husband he's been, and then encourage a bear to eat him.
"I also wanted to tell a story where the girl wins," Gunderson said. "Because it's a comedy, you know the heroine is probably going to be OK. She triumphs. In so many stories, they go back to the abuser and get killed or get hurt.
"I'm using the power of comedy to bring us in ... it's a whiplash of a play, lots of emotion ... the wildness of comedy. It's really a fun piece, I am so excited City Lights is doing it."
Gunderson also sees the story as "A chance to talk about the South. Not caricatures, but real, full-blooded, complex characters with Southern accents. ... It kind of challenges stereotypes, while enjoying them."
Something about "Exit, Pursued By A Bear" that has surprised Gunderson, as it's been produced around the nation, is "The reaction by guys I wouldn't expect to see in the theater, much less enjoying it. Guys. Frat guys. Their girlfriends bring them. It's a feminist play, I expected women. But lots of frat guys come up and say, 'This is awesome!'"
And, Gunderson said, "There are bears. Everybody likes bears."
Truth is, Gunderson does share some similarities with Shakespeare, including productivity. Shakespeare, by the time he shuffled off this mortal coil at the age of 52, had written something like 38 plays, some of which are considered among the best ever written. Gunderson is only 33, but has already seen 17 of her plays produced, has two new works in production, and will probably outlive Shakespeare by decades.
And her work is quite good, which is why theater companies keep producing it.
The two new plays are "Ada and the Memory Engine," about Ada Lovelace, the world's first computer programmer, in 1850, whose father was Lord Byron. CentralWorks Theatre in Berkeley is getting it ready for a premiere in October.
Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, meanwhile, is working on "The Revolutionists" for February 2016, which Gunderson's website describes as "All the fun of the French Revolution without the smell."
Gunderson writes at home in San Francisco, and counts herself lucky to be able to do that.
"I like to write where I can speak out loud to myself. It works well for me. I have my own books, my own wifi ...my own cat ... we call her Mitten."
She also has a husband, Nathan Wolfe, for the last two and a half years.
They met because Gunderson writes a lot about science, and signed up for an event, and someone approached her and said, "'If you write about science, you should meet Nathan Wolfe.' A year later, in San Francisco, we had coffee, and it ended up being a lovely date he had planned. He swept me off my feet. ...
"I love the complexity of our intellectual relationship," Gunderson said. "He is not a theater person, but he is very creative. I am a writer, but approach it like engineering. It makes for interesting conversations."
Email John Orr at email@example.com