Abuser, pursued by a comedy
Lauren Gunderson writes as if pursued by a bear: quickly, zigging and zagging.
“I’ve always been voraciously interested in the world,” she says. Theater allows her “to tell a funny story about violence, a violent story about love, a love story about science. I keep iterating. That’s what keeps me excited and keeps me going. Luckily I write very quickly.”
Gunderson, 31, has already had more than a dozen full-length plays produced, ranging from a musical for children, to a capitalist hipster take on “Macbeth,” to several deep-thinking dramas about science.
The playwright takes another sharp turn in “Exit, Pursued by a Bear,” which Theatre on Fire is presenting at the Charlestown Working Theater through Oct. 26.
It’s a gonzo dark comedy about an unfunny subject: domestic violence.
“My goal has always been to say that this is something that needs to have a feminist perspective, not just be a Lifetime original movie version that’s very sad,” Gunderson says on the phone from her home in San Francisco.
So the Georgia native’s 2011 “revenge comedy” opens with big, dumb, angry Kyle duct-taped to a chair in his musty little house in the north Georgia mountains. His wife, Nan, waited till he had a bellyful of Jack Daniel’s, then clouted him with a frying pan.
Now Nan and her gay friend, Simon, and her new stripper pal, Sweetheart, conduct a show trial over the way Kyle has treated her. He’s a poacher and an abuser; she quotes Jimmy Carter a lot. You can see this won’t end well. And yes, bears will be involved.
“A tragic, dramatic version of the same story is not going to help people lean into it and get to know these characters and love them, and thus care and have the kind of empathy that I think can [raise] awareness about this. But comedy can,” the playwright says.
“I tend to write with the idea that comedy is a catalyst. The things that make us laugh have gone inside us and made us shake and vocalize, and that means we’re connected to them more than just a silent nod in the dark and a foreboding sense of woe,” she says.
The title is Shakespeare’s most famous stage direction, from “The Winter’s Tale.” It gave Gunderson a starting point and a tone for the play.
“It does what I wanted the play to do,” she says. “I wanted it to be scary, in the literal sense of ‘Oh my god, there’s bears,’ but because it is so bold and ferocious of a stage direction and kind of out-of-the-blue strange, it is also funny. I wanted the fierce and funny to meet each other and talk.”
Gunderson says her only experience with domestic abuse is secondhand. The play also resulted from a more generalized feeling about how our society treats women, after too many headlines about “women being berated in public, decried and demeaned across the world, stoned to death for adultery, raped as a war tactic,” as she detailed in a later e-mail. It made her “angry and righteous.”
Coincidentally, Theatre on Fire artistic director Darren Evans was looking for a change after a run of male-centric and often violent dramas that included the feuding nightclub gangsters of “Mojo,” the noir madness of “A Behanding in Spokane,” and even the fascist cocktail chat of “Party Time.”
“I don’t want to be the Testosterone Theater Company,” says Evans, who is also directing the show. “It just so happens that ‘Exit, Pursued’ is in many ways the opposite of that. This play really fits the bill in terms of getting a female perspective and female writer with a story around a female protagonist.”
Evans switched it up in other ways, too. He spurned his loose-knit group of regular performers for four newcomers to Theatre on Fire who won him over at auditions in August: Mary-Liz Murray (Nan), Tim Hoover (Kyle), Samantha Evans (Sweetheart), and Cameron Beaty Gosselin (Simon).
Gunderson’s script calls for projected stage directions throughout the show, and the characters sometimes address the audience directly.
“She’s really sort of breaking down that barrier and getting away from a strict realism, which we’ve been doing a lot of,” Evans says. “The way the playwright is presenting the world is stylized, so we’re going along with that.”
If duct tape and bears aren’t to your taste, WAM Theatre presents Gunderson’s “Emilie: La Marquise Du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight,” Nov. 7-24 at the Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center in Pittsfield.
Du Châtelet, played by Kim Stauffer, is best known for her long affair with Voltaire, but seems to have been one of Europe’s brightest minds in the 18th century, renowned for her knowledge of math and physics.
“It’s a science-history play. It couldn’t be more different,” Gunderson says. Having two plays so close together “seems to be my MO these days.” She notes that she has six productions — five of them premieres — scheduled in the Bay area over the next 12 months.
Play honors abolitionist
Jamaica Plain resident Peter Snoad begins a yearlong tour as visiting playwright at Hibernian Hall in Roxbury with a production of his “Raising David Walker.” The play is set in 1979, when a grad student at an unnamed Boston university takes an elective on the history of racism, then finds real-life 19th-century abolitionist Walker sitting in her living room. Recent Emerson graduate Shanaé Burch plays the student, and the cast also includes well-known local actors Kami Rushell Smith, Diego Arciniegas, and Ricardo Engermann (as Walker). There are only four performances on the schedule, Oct. 24-27. Tickets are $20 on www.hibernianhall.org.
The play is just one of the events set for this fall to honor Walker 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, including a remembrance march with a New Orleans-style jazz band on Oct. 27 through the former African-American enclave in Beacon Hill where Walker lived. Details at www.davidwalkermemorial.org.