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Exit, Pursued by a Bear

March 6, 2012

I just saw two plays in two different towns over the course of two days which featured two actors dressed up in bear costumes. And in both plays, the bears performed dance routines. Seriously.

The bears in The Ballad of Betsy Paradise, a whimsical and not always coherent drama about the elasticity of time written by Dan Poston and directed by Joy Brooke Fairfield at Stanford on Thursday night, were of the creepy variety. Mustard yellow in color, slightly threadbare and bulbous bellied, the bears had smiling faces and inert saucer eyes. They were the sort of bears that nightmares are made of. In the context of the play, which followed the real and make-believe life of an 11-year-old girl, the bears represented a haunted, lost childhood, something less to be remembered fondly as much as feared.

Contrastingly, in Timboctou, Alejandro Ricano's hard-hitting and complex drama about American-Mexican relations and, more broadly, mankind's twin impulses to nurture and destroy itself and the planet at REDCAT in Los Angeles on Saturday night, director Martin Acosta staged scenes in which a pair of actors in polar bear costumes behaved as cutely as possible. The costumes were somewhat realistic and very fluffy. Because one costume held a tall actor and the other a very short one, the dynamic was that of a parent-child bear pair, which further increased the "awww" factor. They clambered around and played in a way that was in stark contrast to the aggressive, serious punchiness of the rest of the action going on on stage, with actors engaged in scenes of violence and ruin punctuated by explosive martial arts-like movements, military marching and a near-constant flow of expletives. At the end of the play, when the bears performed a surreal ballet to a somber piece of music by Handel, the effect was bizarre and slightly chilling. The bears in this play signified a different version of loss from that of the student production at Stanford -- a place where animals frolic in a natural nirvana unblemished by global warming.

At this point in my blog post, I ought to be ready to pontificate about what the pairs of bears on stage could possibly mean. But the truth is, I've no idea. Their presence will simply have to remain a wonderful curiosity of a weekend of theatre-going.


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