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Director pursues bigger show with ‘Exit’ at Hopewell

Rosayln Bystone is working her way into directing incrementally.

Her first directing effort, “The Sea Horse” at Hopewell Theatre in 2019, was a two-character drama with a single set and minimal lighting cues.

With “Exit, Pursued by a Bear,” which opens Friday at Hopewell for a two-weekend run, the scale expands.

“‘Exit’ doubles the cast, four actors instead of two,” Blystone said. “It’s still one set, but there’s another layer with digital effects, coordinating with sound and lighting. It’s definitely more complex.

“And comedy in its own right can be difficult in the timing. I’m trying to continue to grow and challenge myself as a director. I come at this as an actress first. I’ve been performing since I was a little kid, and I love the entire process.”

As a member of the local improv group Dinner Theatre Rejects, Blystone has a comedy background from which to draw.

“Dinner Theatre Rejects has really helped me let go of a lot of the fears of being afraid to make a fool of yourself,” she said. “You have to let loose of the judgment the world will have and jump off the cliff. With comedy it’s all about trusting your partner on stage and building that rapport.”

Lauren Gunderson’s “Exit, Pursued by a Bear” is the story of Nan (played by Celena Coven), an abused wife who takes her husband Kyle (Nick Mulichak) hostage with the help of her friend and emotional cheerleader Simon (Bobby Brown Jr.) and a stripper named Sweetheart (Sydney Campbell). The trio then acts out scenes from Nan’s and Kyle’s marriage while he’s duct-taped to a chair and threatened with being mauled by a bear.

The show plays without intermission and runs about 75 minutes.

“The biggest challenge is we’re dealing with very weighty subject matter. Domestic violence is not something we laugh about,” Blystone said. “You have to have a grounded and honest connection to such a serious topic.”

She compared the extremes of the story to watching talk / reality shows like Maury Povich and “Big Brother.”

“People’s behavior can be really abhorrent, and you have to be willing to take that ride.”

In recent years, Gunderson has been at or near the top of the list of the most produced playwrights in America. Youngstown State University staged Gunderson’s “The Revolutionists” last season and Kent State University at Trumbull Theatre will perform her “I and You” in April.

Blystone first read a different play by Gunderson. She didn’t connect with that script, but she liked the writer’s work enough that she started reading some of her other plays, which is how she discovered “Exit.”

“I love her voice as a playwright,” she said. “She has a more multi-faceted, layered female perspective. As a middle-aged woman, I love how she gives voice to her characters. When I read ‘Exit,’ I laughed through the whole script, and could totally picture this on stage.”

The title is a stage direction from Shakespeare’s “The Winter Tale,” and one of the technical elements in the staging is that most of the stage directions are projected on a screen during the production.

Bystone credited David Leach for creating the digital effects and her husband, Brian Blystone, for making the set she envisioned a reality.

She also praised the actors for their efforts despite limited group rehearsals on the stage because of the musical that occupied Hopewell into November (“Sweeney Todd”) and the one that will follow “Exit” there in January (“Cabaret”).

“Every single one of them has made such leaps and bounds in their growth with these characters under such a short amount of time.”

If you go …

WHAT: “Exit, Pursued by a Bear”

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday through Dec. 16 and 2 p.m. Dec. 17

WHERE: Hopewell Theatre, 702 Mahoning Ave., Youngstown

HOW MUCH: $15 for adults and $12 for students and senior citizens and are available online at hopewelltheatre.org and by calling 330-746-5455.

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