The Hunter and the Bear at Writers Theatre A Scarily Inventive Ghost Story

Ryan Melia, Matt Nuernberger, Ben Ferguson, Alex Falberg, Arya Shahi, Curtis Gillen in THE HUNTER AND THE BEAR
Ryan Melia, Matt Nuernberger, Ben Ferguson, Alex Falberg, Arya Shahi, Curtis Gillen in The Hunter and the Bear. 

In 2013, during Writers Theatre’s final season in the Women’s Library Club building, PigPen Theatre Co. made their Chicago debut with their much-lauded production of The Old Man and the Old Moon. The members of PigPen Theatre Co., who met as students at Carnegie Mellon University and brand themselves as a “band of storytellers,” create original, ensemble-driven productions utilizing a variety of storytelling mediums. Now, in Writers Theatre’s stunning new home, PigPen Theatre Co. has returned to Chicago with their newest production, The Hunter and the Bear.

The Hunter and the Bear is both a frontier folktale and a ghost story, primarily chronicling the story of Tobias, a father who travels dark into the woods after a bear attack in search of his missing son, Elliot. While it would be fair to claim that Tobias, played by Ben Ferguson, is the protagonist of this tale, the piece is such an impressive ensemble collaboration that the remainder of the cast (which includes Alex Falberg, Curtis Gillen, Ryan Mella, Matt Nuernberger, Arya Shahi, and Dan Weschler) is equally important in telling this ghostly story. Whether creating shadow puppetry or naturalistic sound effects, or singing the show’s baleful and evocative original folk score, the members of PigPen Theatre Co. pull out all the stops in telling this story.

Co-directed by Stuart Carden, The Hunter and the Bear’s inventive storytelling is backed by spectacular design. Scenic designer Collette Pollard’s set perfectly captures the darkness and mystery of the forest, replicating fallen trees as well as trunks soaring into the sky. Complemented by Bart Cortright’s moody lighting design, the forest looms as large as the ghost stories relayed by the pioneers early in the play. Puppetry design by Lydia Fine is deeply effective–from deer to hawks to Elliot himself, there is a simplicity to her work that renders the play’s storytelling crystal clear.

What is perhaps most impressive about this already impressive collaboration is the clarity of its storytelling. Despite the use of more stylized and theatrical storytelling devices, the audience is never once lost in this twisting and expansive folktale. Sticks illuminated by flashlights serve as the branches Tobias rushes through in his search and his son is represented by an expressive wooden puppet voiced with mercurial curiosity by Ryan Mella, but none of these conceits muddy the narrative once.

This infusion of theatricality serves to transform The Alexandra C. and John D. Nichols Theatre into a world where restless spirits’ journeys to the other side intersect with humans’ paths, and a burning girl made of smoke serves as a reminder of a forest’s haunted past. Atmospheric and impeccably acted, The Hunter and the Bear serves as a stirring rumination on life, death and the stories we tell.

The Hunter and the Bear has been extended with performances through January 29. Performances continue Tuesdays through Sundays, and prices for all performances range from $35 to $80. To purchase tickets, call 847-242-6000 or buy them online.

Getting to Writers Theatre: In an effort to promote taking public transit to the theater, Writers Theatre launched a new promotion in 2013. Any audience member who purchases a ticket to a Writers Theatre production and rides Metra’s Union Pacific North Line to the theater may snap a photo of themselves on the train and post it to their Facebook page or Twitter feed with a tag of @WritersTheatre and #[the title of the show], and upon showing the post at the Writers Theatre Box Office, receive $5 in cash to put toward the cost of your fare as a thank you for going green.

Brent Eickhoff
Brent Eickhoff

Brent Eickhoff is a Chicago-based director, writer, and educator. Brent has worked with A Red Orchid Theatre, Mary-Arrchie Theatre Co., The Arc Theatre, The Public House Theatre, Something Marvelous, Whiskey Radio Hour, and The Burrowers. He is the Educational Coordinator for Silk Road Rising, and is a founder and co-artistic director of Blue Goose Theatre Ensemble. While Brent has worked with a variety of Chicago theatre artists, he doesn't let that get in the way of writing unbiased reviews of any production he covers.