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THEATER REVIEW The Hunter and the Bear
by Scott C. Morgan, Windy City Times
2016-12-28

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Created by: PigPen Theatre Company. At: Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe. Tickets: 847-242-6000 or WritersTheatre.org; $35-$80. Runs through: Jan. 22

Supernatural forces are at eerie play in The Hunter and the Bear, a world-premiere ghost story by PigPen Theatre Co. at Writers Theatre in Glencoe. Many theatrical flourishes are also deployed that wow in the moment but, upon reflection, ultimately outshine the play's tragic denouement.

PigPen Theatre Co. is the talented troupe behind the hit 2013 run of The Old Man and The Old Moon in Writers' previous intimate Tudor Court home. With The Hunter and the Bear, PigPen is working on a much bigger canvas in the sparkling new expanse of Writers' Nichols Theatre.

Technically, PigPen handsomely dresses up the theater space with woodsy multi-level sets by designer Collette Pollard. Her many hollowed out trunks are nicely accentuated by the alternately spooky and fiery lighting designs of Bart Cortright. There's also clever use of puppetry styles ranging from shadow play to bunraku throughout, all ingeniously worked into the staging's fabric by designer Lydia Fine.

And there are no qualms in regards to the talented ensemble who navigate through multiple roles under the skilled direction of Stuart Carden. In one moment they're simply eager actors, then folksy musicians. Other times they're puppeteers or on occasion Foley artists creating convincing sound effects like a crackling campfire.

But ultimately The Hunter and the Bear gets lost in the woods due to an unsatisfying story conclusion. There's no single credited playwright for the production—just the PigPen ensemble. So that could explain why the promising mystery that gets so frighteningly built up ends with a so-so fizzle.

The Hunter and the Bear centers around a band of 19th century frontier explorers looking to build a logging company in the Pacific Northwest. But things get creepy when they encounter the haunted wanderer Lewis ( Dan Weschler ) and his ghost stories that bear more truth than myth.

Part of the problem is that audiences are led to expect that The Hunter and the Bear will be an ensemble piece involving all the frontiersmen facing down a supersize and supernatural bear in a climactic big battle. But that showdown never comes as the play ends on a sad personalized note between the title hunter of Tobias ( Ben Ferguson ) and his young puppet-rendered son, Elliot ( Ryan Melia ).

This shift leaves the rest of the ensemble feeling under-defined, though not underutilized since they're in constant motion in the background to accentuate the story. Perhaps if The Hunter and the Bear could be refined in subsequent runs elsewhere to tighten the plot or build to a bigger climax. Then the story itself will feel more equal to the grand scale of PigPen's assured theatrical storytelling.


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