Groundswell Theatre Company's Bear Eats Bear
This site-specific audio work puts the audience in a postapocalyptic world to show how central art is to the human experience
Reviewed by Elizabeth Cobbe, Fri., Nov. 3, 2017
Man. You take away most of the traditional performance spaces from a city, and theatre companies wind up making some crazy stuff.
Groundswell theatre company is offering the premiere of Lydia Blaisdell's site-specific work Bear Eats Bear, an "immersive audio experience" at a central location which they'll only tell you about once you get a ticket. Discovery is so central to the audience experience that one can only discuss the production in the roughest terms. (Carpool and wear good shoes!) Audience members are first placed into a situation in which they form the outlines of community. Then they follow two actors inside (and, during a recent performance, try to ignore the smells and sounds of a local food-and-music festival) and enter a postapocalyptic narrative. They are given a cassette player and a cassette, and encouraged to walk around outside independently, as they listen to a recording filled with interpretations of the great stories of "The Before Time."
The dystopian adventure tale enters a crowded field right now; it's the times, right? Postapocalyptic settings: They're not just for sci-fi geeks or survivalist libertarians anymore! The Walking Dead was on in my house when I left for the performance, and I've recently read The Last Policeman and Station Eleven, among others. Actually, Emily St. John Mandel's novel Station Eleven and its tale of the Traveling Symphony, with the words "Survival is insufficient" painted on its caravan, is not far off in theme from Bear Eats Bear. The context for societal collapse is different, and Blaisdell's language becomes quite precious at times, but the exploration of how central art is to the human experience is at the heart of both works.
Bear Eats Bear features a group of rebels who are what most progressives likely imagine themselves to be should they survive a mass calamity. They're a peaceful, Earth-friendly feminist collective of farmers who work with their hands, and they carve out time to keep the flame of knowledge and literature alive. Bear Eats Bear is less a play than it is a role-playing experience in which audience members are inducted into this new society, operating on the fringes of survival.
The show hits a few snags, some of which the company can't help. They stage the show in a central location for good reasons, but the time when one could walk anywhere in Central Austin and pretend to be isolated in a postapocalyptic world is about 10 years past. So there's some imagination required.
The structure of the show means that the final element of the experience involves the audience talking to performers, who respond in character. At a recent performance, that was the point at which audience members worked out the exact parameters of this new world, which is a little late in the process.
A host of local women actors whose voices will be familiar to anyone who sees much Austin theatre (or who has her memory jogged by the list of credits) provide the narration. Nobody does a bad job; Lana Dieterich's character-filled voice and manner of telling seem designed for this kind of project.
Groundswell co-produces Bear Eats Bear with the Rude Mechs, who have made a practice of returning to shows and developing them further each time. Thoughtful and tenderhearted, Bear Eats Bear is a great curiosity now. Should it live to see another production, it may grow into an even more remarkable show.
Bear Eats BearSecret location
Through Nov. 12
Running time: 1 hr. (give or take)