Chicago Theatre Review
A Ghost Story in the Woods
The Hunter and the Bear – Writers Theatre
Six men and a little boy travel to a forest in the Pacific Northwest planning to chop down trees for their lumber company. What they find instead is a dark, mysterious woodland ruled by a giant bear and, perhaps, haunted by ghosts. Through the flickering firelight Tobias, his son Elliot, Prescott, the driving manager of the lumber company, Pete, Bailey and John discover that there’s more awaiting them in this dark forest than just trees. They encounter a strange, enigmatic man named Lewis who needs the innocent power possessed by young Elliot to summon up the spirits of the woods in order to exorcise his sins from the past. The result is an eerie, often downright terrifying ghost story that will chill theatergoers to the bone.
PigPen Theatre Company, whose unique brand of productions and performances originated almost ten years ago when these young men were students at Carnegie Mellon School of Drama, returns to Writers Theatre following their highly acclaimed past production of “The Old Man and the Old Moon.” Employing poetic language and original music into their scripts, created instrumentally and sung by the cast, PigPen has performed all over the country, winning multiple accolades and awards of excellence.
This new production, brilliantly co-directed by the Theatre Company themselves and Stuart Carden (who also helmed PigPen’s former play at Writers Theatre), is a masterwork of creativity. Besides incorporating original music, the play is a celebration of storytelling at its finest. It employs presentational narrative, wherein the cast break the fourth wall and speak directly to the audience. The actors also become the characters, as well as providing the moody, atmospheric sounds and special visions. Puppets are used to great effect in a variety of ways, particularly to depict Elliot, the young boy and costar of the story. Sound and illumination play a big part in telling this tale, mining all the mystery, fear and unseen promise of the unknown from light and shadow.
The cast is led by Ben Ferguson, as Tobias. He plays a devoted father who lovingly cares for his son, taking him on all his lumbering excursions. Elliot, his small son, is played with youthful curiosity and wonder by Ryan Melia. Manipulating his life size puppet, Mr. Melia infuses his character with an impish innocence and grownup courage, as he leads his father toward understanding and enlightenment. As Lewis, the mysterious man who suddenly appears out of the darkness, Dan Weschler at first seems frightening, but the audience begins to understand, long before Tobias and his men, that this is fellow who’s hurting and in need help. Eventually skepticism gives way to trust and Tobias learns that Lewis has much to teach about the spirits haunting this forest.
Alex Falberg portrays Prescott with the requisite strength and authority of a boss in charge of an army of workers. Matt Nuernberger is appealing as Bailey, Curtis Gillen is excellent as Pete and Arya Shahi creates in John a multidimensional character who is a confutation of many talents and traits. The entire cast lend their voices to songs and melodies that permeate this ghost story, while accompanying on guitar, banjo, piano, drums and other percussive instruments.
The technical support for this production is especially strong and adds a great deal, beginning with Bart Cortright’s ghostly lighting design which is matched by Mikhail Fiksel’s frightening palate of sound. Collette Pollard’s multilevel set is dominated by pillars of giant trees, some fallen and lying on the ground, others soaring up beyond sight. Lydia Fine has designed costumes appropriate for lumberjacks working in the cold, wet north woods, while also designing and fashioning a lifelike puppet that will become Elliot.
In a production that celebrates the time-honored genre of storytelling, as well as employing a copse of invention from an array of creative theatrical artists, this new play by the always exciting PigPen Theatre Company brings a welcome, unusual form of entertainment to Chicagoland. Audiences will be held spellbound by the ominous sense of dread and fear that drives this modern folk tale. Fine direction, excellent performances and polished production values enhance a play that offers even more chills and goosebumps than the cold, winter evening.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented December 7-January 22 by Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe, IL.
Tickets are available by calling 847-242-6000 or by going to www.writerstheatre.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.