Friday, April 09, 2010

review of *Escanaba in da Moonlight*

at Spokane Civic Theatre through April 25

A man with a rifle brings it to bear directly at us. He cocks the hammer. Takes a big, calming breath.
On the way in to the huntin’ lodge for openin’ day of deer season, you see, he’d had a vision. (Maybe it was all those PBRs he drank -- but to him, it was a vision.) A vision of a huge buck, dancin’ on the highway, as he was drivin’, right before his eyes. So he raised his .30-.30 (this being the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, he calls it his “turdy-turdy”) and then he “cocked back the hammer and blew him off the face of the earth.”
This is David Gigler as Remnar Soady -- all mismatched plaids and camo pants -- inviting us into his world for opening’ day here at the world-famous Soady Deer Camp somewhere out in the woods outside the town of Escanaba, where boys become men when they bag their first buck, and all the women have come to the conclusion that all the men are merely morons.
Gigler’s portrayal of Remnar is one of the funniest features of one of the funniest productions the Civic has created in recent years. Director Troy Nickerson’s gift for portraying men making fools of themselves, along with Peter Hardie’s man-cave of a rustic huntin’ lodge set, Hardie’s ominous lighting -- there are creepy things out in the Michigan woods -- Jan Wanless’s costume design (plenty of flannel and ear flaps) and Jeff “Dumberer” Daniels’ comic-onslaught of a script all combine, at breakneck pace, to create an enclave of eccentrics who think they see happiness, don’t know what to make of it, and decide to fire off a few rounds just to work off their frustrations.
Escanaba in da Moonlight, which has been produced all over the country ever since Daniels premiered it in 1995 at the little Upper Peninsula theater that he oversees, is full of sex jokes, gross-out jokes, cockamamie conspiracy theories and concern for the male pecking order.
It’s not men behaving badly, in other words -- it’s men behaving normally.
All that, and Act Two has the Mother of All Extended Fart Jokes.
And there, my friends, is where the comedy lingers.

Wes Deitrick -- with dumb geniality straight out of The Red Green Show, and with the befuddled looks and excess of flannel plaids to prove it -- acts as the clan’s patriarch and the audience’s goofball narrator. If scratching yourself constantly, fantasizing about 18-point bucks, staying in a hootch-induced stupor all day, and making fun of anyone who’s not from northern Michigan seems like it might be a foreign experience, Deitrick’s Albert Soady is there to guide you.
Gigler knows how to play the confident doofus, sure of his hunting mastery right up until he isn’t. (Then the little superstitions tumble out.)
The plot (more like a series of boyish squabbles over nothing’, but funny) revolves around the fact that the other Soady son, Reuben (Civic newcomer Scott Miller, persuasively desperate) has dishonored the family by remaining, at age 35, “buckless“ and “without venison.” (He’s “just not a straight shooter.”)
As Reuben pursues his buck-bagging quest, the action gets entangled with alien abductions, maple-flavored whiskey and Native American rituals (in ways you’ll just have to witness for yourself).
In a show that hurls its eccentricities at you relentlessly, the most eccentric characterization belongs to Todd Kehne as Jimmer Negamanee of Menominne. (Say that fast five times, and you’ll be talking gibberish just like he does. Jimmer hasn’t been the same since strange things happened to him out in the woods, you see.) Kehne is a revelation, with incredibly high energy, antic fits, and expressions that convey his puzzlement that the backwoods boys around him don’t realize that they’re just as insane as he is. (Slightly better diction, is all.)
For a glimpse of the attention to detail, both by Nickerson and his cast, watch the episode when Reuben introduces the gang to some foul-smelling stuff that supposedly wards off evil spirits. The joke -- and as in much of Daniels’ play, you may see it coming, but it’s funny anyway -- is that once it gets all freaky-deaky outside, the guys are going to go for the liquid they were just now acting all squeamish about. One dabs it daintily, with two fingers grazing his neck; one splatters himself; another slathers it on.
Or when characters, seemingly catatonic, suddenly but briefly rise up just to clarify a point or two -- you can see where rehearsals paid off, where Nickerson and his inventive actors had experimented, tried things out, and opted for the funniest bits.

The script and acting both veer off occasionally into the kind of excessive silliness that can make an audience become self-conscious about being directed to laugh instead of simply laughing. The eccentricities of the forest ranger, the predictability of who’s behind Reuben’s vision-quest (and why), the childish exuberance of some of these men’s rituals and superstitions (over-indicated, and with too much stepping on the laughter) all briefly intrude on the fun.
But not much, and not for long. Daniels and Nickerson keep the surprises and the goofin’ at a fever pitch, and the result was a whole lot of belly laughs

People were wiping away tears, they were laughing so hard. (I noticed this, right after wiping away my own.)
That fart joke, it’ll really blow ya away, yah sure.
Escanaba in da Moonlight is one of the funniest and inhibition-shattering comedies you’re likely to see.
I may be more like those “white wine-drinking, Winnebago-driving, fun-sucking trolls” who live in urban areas of the Lower Peninsula (like, God forbid, Detroit) -- and I’ve never handled a “turdy-turdy” rifle in my life, but I’d go back to spend a couple hours with the Soadys anytime. Somehow they remind me of the no-slugs, penalty-beer, passed-out-on-the-couch-so-put-his-fingers-in-warm-water days of my misspent youth.
I’d like to spend some more of it. And the Soadys seems to have their fingers in my pocket.

[ video cover (2001) from ]

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