City Circle - The Arkansaw Bear is not a play that trades in subtlety. Everything in the play is metaphor writ large: death is the ringmaster who comes for us all, and life is a dancing bear.
The play begins with the discordant sounds of a family in mourning: Grandpa is dying, soon, and his granddaughter Tish is not allowed to see him. Her mother, portrayed by Elisabeth Ross, and Ellen Stevenson as Aunt Ellen, bear their grief in the harshness of their words and in the slump of their shoulders. They do not explain why Tish cannot see Grandpa; only that he will be gone soon, and she must go away now.
She runs away to her spot, a large tree in the forest, beautifully engineered out of brown kraft paper. She wishes on the First Star, and we are treated to Kit Gerken literally twinkling in the character of Star Bright, the wish granting star. She’s just so happy to be there, to be the first star out tonight and have the honor of granting wishes. She flits about the stage in a starry velvet gown, and grants Tish her wish: to understand why Grandpa has to go. The wish is granted in the form of a dancing bear, and her traveling companion, a mime.
Of course in the world of plays for children there needs not be a reason for a dancing bear to be accompanied by a mime, although the character did give me pause. Patricia Dawn Clark did a wonderful job in the role, conveying much without saying anything aloud. She let her body, her expressive face, and her hands do the talking. The audience is never given a reason for her; the bear can speak for herself. When the need arises, Dick Paulus’ booming Announcer comes on the stage, resplendent in sparkling blue, barking out the introduction to the “World’s Greatest Dancing Bear!”
I’m not sure if she would take this as a compliment, but Barbara Lee fit perfectly the part of the Bear. She was old and weary enough to make the imminent threat of being lead away by the Ringmaster to the great inner circle convincing, but spry and willing enough to perform many lively dances—all while, of course, wearing a big fluffy bear costume. The wardrober for this show deserves commendation, and if there were an Iowa City Theater Blog award for costuming, this show could win, for many reasons, not the least of which would be the Bear’s many hats. A sombrero that fits over a bear costume! And, I wondered, did the sombrero come that way, or did someone have to sew on every last one of those dangling balls?
The Dancing Bear is trying to run away from death, embodied in this production by Megan Bohlke as a stern, but fair ringmaster. My eight-year-old daughter accompanied me to the show, and the part of the ringmaster was the spark of many questions. Why was the ringmaster death? I explained that, since no one really knows what death is, we make up stories to help ourselves understand it, and that one of them is that someone comes to take you away when you die. Since the Dancing Bear was a circus animal, it was only natural for a ringmaster to be her Grim Reaper. Megan Bohlke managed to portray compassion for the plight of the dying bear while keeping a severely erect back and an even tone to her voice.
Death is never far from this play. We are not allowed to forget that Tish’s grandfather, or the bear, will soon be gone. Everyone in the audience who has lost someone will no doubt revisit the pain of that loss as they watch the bear grasping at one last chance to pass on her legacy.
At the midpoint of the show, Little Bear makes her appearance, played by the charming Amy Ostrem. She was a ray of sunshine in the show, by virtue of both acting well in spite of being encumbered by a bear costume topped with overalls, and by being the only character not confronting death any time in the near future (though it does figure in her past). She comes on stage whistling a happy tune, just as natural as can be, just a bear comin’ home from the fishing hole.
I urge you to look up as the nighttime wanes in the story, to see a beautiful moon on the wall high above the stage. I was fortunate to have the aforementioned 8-year-old point it out to me. The set is beautiful in its simplicity. I’ve been to plays with overwhelmingly beautiful sets, but some of the best work I’ve seen is simple and functional, like this. A stool. A tree. A scrim that opens to reveal a Star. And the accompanying lighting does an excellent job of conveying the mood.
No review of this play would be complete without applause given to the piano player, Ben Bentler, who managed to faultlessly segue from a bright and happy dancing tune to the sounds of a sinister calliope.
Ali Heath in the role of Tish straddles nicely the lines between maudlin grief and childlike hope, as well as the disconnect between the world of reality and world of dancing bears. She is enthusiastic when necessary, and downtrodden when the reality of death confronts her again.
This is the saddest dancing bear related play you’re ever likely to see, but it’s well worth the admission for the Two Bear Tarantella alone. Just remember to bring a tissue.
Sharon Falduto has been involved with theatre for many years. Notable roles include Corrie in Barefoot in the Park with Dreamwell and Myra in Hay Fever with ICCT. She has directed God for the now defunct student group, West Side Players, and Of Mice and Men for Dreamwell. She is currently out of the theatre scene, as she is busy directing the lives of Rachel, Samantha, and Piper at her home in Coralville. She still enjoys the stage, however, and hopes to trod the boards again in the future.