Based on the press material that preceded it, I expected The Bear Loves Honey to creep me out a little bit – which it most certainly did. But I was surprised to find it also gentle and humane – a careful balance of contrasting yet complementary elements.
As presented by Baltimore’s White Flag Performance Group, hosted by Theatre , the program notes present the pertinent details of the scenario. Just two years ago, a Russian historian was arrested for exhuming the bodies of 29 young girls from local cemeteries. He stuffed the bodies with various toys, clocks and music boxes, dressed them up, and had tea with them. The man was a brilliant historian and published author with a gruesome fetish.
Those details are largely missing from the script, or at least not conventionally rendered except in some inventively staged interrogation scenes; and the play itself is a deeply expressionistic take on ideas only inspired by the real-life events. The elliptical narrative structure can seem off-putting at first, as the actions of three actors build a distinctly eccentric dynamic. But the tone and texture powerfully define the first part of the play with a creepy and oppressive atmosphere. The lighting and especially the brilliant sound design have a profoundly disconcerting effect that challenges the viewer into discomfort.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the story is that the focus follows the victims more than the man, here called Emmet, and that the corpses are given such vivid flesh and blood reality as to be persuasively portrayed as victims. The girls are manifested as beings awkwardly reborn into a deeply dysfunctional existence, taking first steps into language and motor skills that are somewhat disturbing to witness, as they experience shock and trauma in the transition. Whether they are their original selves again or some other new creation that exists only in Emmet’s troubled psyche is one of the intriguing questions posed for the audience. Eventually their entirely compelling presentation becomes just engaging enough to alleviate the darkness.
The two actresses are Caitlin Weaver and Allie Press and, with due respect to Steve Barroga’s fine and disciplined performance as Emmet, they work in such close and well-defined collaboration and establish an essential connection with the audience that it anchors the difficult material in important ways. One scene in particular in which the latest victim is shepherded into place by another was simultaneously the single most harrowing and compassionate moment of the entire evening and was a wonder to behold. When the White Flag mission statement speaks of “heightened physicality,” this is what they mean. This is “devised” theatre, built from scratch through a careful process of collaborative improvisation and finally fashioned into a script; and one can imagine that such a sublime moment is hard-won and a suitably satisfying representation of this group’s aesthetic.
While the surreal, pitch-black tone and gruesomeness (Emmet’s careful ministrations with the corpses are portrayed not graphically but with a poetical suggestiveness that is nonetheless unnerving) may not be for everybody, The Bear Loves Honey is a unique piece of theatre that stands apart from most of what the busy and diverse Louisville theatre scene has to offer. It is daring and provocative and worth enduring the moments that make you squirm for the moments that make you think. It might just expand your understanding of the human experience in unexpected ways.
Tim & Dair Mathistad
Katie & Chris Haulter
Kathy Todd Chaney
Angie Reed Garner