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Holy Wha! ‘Escanaba In Da Moonlight’

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Matt Madore, Allen Adams, Brad LaBree, Cory Osborne & Craig Bockhorn (AEA). Matt Madore, Allen Adams, Brad LaBree, Cory Osborne & Craig Bockhorn (AEA). (photo courtesy PTC/© magnus stark, 2018)









BANGOR – Many theatre patrons probably don’t associate Jeff Daniels with the stage. You might think of his Emmy-winning turn in HBO’s “The Newsroom,” one of his various Golden Globe-nominated roles or appearances in notable films - yes, even “Dumb and Dumber.”

But he’s also recently received a Tony nomination for Broadway’s “Blackbird,” and in his home state of Michigan, he’s known as the founder of the Purple Rose Theatre Company, where he wrote and produced “Escanaba in da Moonlight.” 

Daniels originally penned the play for PRTC, but PTC Artistic Director Bari Newport brings this hoot-and-a-half to Bangor for a Maine premiere as the fourth show of Penobscot Theatre Company’s 44th season. And make no mistake - should you hazard the trip with Newport past the “mitten” of Michigan to the wild outpost of the Soady clan, you will enjoy all the charm of a bona fide rustic family vacation.

(Note: The Maine Edge’s editor Allen Adams is a member of the cast of this production.)

At the forefront of the script is the importance of stories and traditions, and the people who pass them down. The show opens on frame narrator and most senior Soady, Albert (Craig Bockhorn), whittling in a rocking chair, easing us into some of the phraseology of the U.P. That’s Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to you flatlanders out there.

(But don’t worry about losing the plot: A handy guide to “Yooper” ( slang is also nestled into the program, so no “fudgesucker” (noun, perjorative: tourist; consumer of formidable Mackinac Island confections) needs to feel themselves left out in the cold.)

Albert knows most of his listeners can’t tell Marquette from Menominee, gleefully inviting them closer while holding them just far enough away to roast. The tension between pride of home and contempt for visitors who just can’t appreciate it the same way he can will be pleasantly familiar to Maine-iac patrons.

Albert tells us the story of one particular trip to the Soady camp with his boys Reuben (Matt Madore) and Remnar (Cory Osborne), and assures us that no matter how far-fetched it may seem, it’s no tall tale. We see the boys join their father at camp, and it seems to be business as usual.

However, amidst the same old talk of sap whiskey and pasties, it’s revealed that Reuben is about to become the oldest Soady in their family’s history to have never bagged a deer. Thinking himself to be cursed and having promised his wife Wolf Moon Dance (Eve A. Dana) that this is his year, Reuben breaks with family tradition in an effort to change his luck. Things get weird when hunting buddy/paranormal-abductee Jimmer Negamanee (Brad LaBree) shows up, and it only gets weirder as the night goes on. Unexplained phenomena and the arrival of DNR official Ranger Tom (Allen Adams) keep the boys on edge. Is there anything Reuben can do to turn things around? And just what exactly is going on at the Soady camp?

A small cast can expose weak performances, because there’s nowhere to hide. “Escanaba”demands full commitment to outrageous premises, athletic slapstick, hyper-specific regional accents and genuine stakes - and to a person, PTC’s cast nails it.

Madore is downright loveable as the well-meaning but chronically underestimated Reuben. You can’t help but root for him as his world spins out of his control. Osborne’s high-octane Remnar is practiced hunting-bro personified, but the unexpected sincerity with which he delivers some of the funniest lines in the show is an extra treat.

Meanwhile, LaBree’s Jimmer is a master class in timing and commitment. Every last element of this character is over-the-top absurd, but the audience anticipates his every garbled word. And let’s just leave it up to you to witness the travesty he commits on long underwear.

Bockhorn is a comparatively subtle presence during the action, while he gets to shine during Albert’s direct addresses. His conversational ease grounds the story when we recognize our fathers, grandfathers and neighbors within it. Dana creates a striking Wolf Moon Dance who arrives just in the nick of time. And Allen Adams has some fun as the buttoned-up Ranger Tom, subjected to all manner of wonders (and indignities) over the course of the escalating absurdity.

The richness of the design elements also creates an immersive world. Jonathan Spencer’s set features the roughed-in outline of the most rustic of deer camps, down to its corrugated steel roof, formica-topped dining table, bunk beds and rolls of toilet paper stacked ominously by the door. A variety of lighting, also designed by Spencer, successfully defines the storytelling framework from the events of Opening Day and includes a variety of otherworldly effects. Katie Guzzi’s implementation of surround sound gives the viewer a taste of the hair-raising events the Soadys and their guests experience. Kevin Koski’s carefully selected and distressed costumes seemed so authentically lived-in you can almost smell them.

The show’s cast, design and high-spirited direction are all worth the price of admission, but it’s worth noting that the script’s second act is noticeably thinner than its first. Be prepared for the rich, warm characters we befriend in the exposition to be swept hastily toward the conclusion of the plot while their relationships are a bit sidelined in the name of some fascinatingly bonkers sequences. This will not trouble an audience who has come to see the near tall tale the prologue suggests it could be, but the script’s non-fantastical elements are some of its most brilliant and given shortest shrift in its conclusion.

For example, it seemed unfortunate that Wolf Moon Dance was invoked so frequently, and yet her actual appearance in the script is so limited. It was good to see PTC make the right choice to cast Dana, an enrolled member of the Penobscot Nation, in this role, but it felt as if this character and her indigenous community of the Upper Peninsula deserved more. This does not appear to be a fault of the production so much as a flaw in an otherwise enjoyable script, and there will be those who argue that her story, or the story of the family’s relationship, are not the central ones. If the worst to be said about a production is that you wish there had been more of it, the producing team and cast must be doing many things right.

Newport has selected a piece that warms that bleak ice patch between the holidays and spring. Fans of Bob Marley, Tim Sample, and The Red Green Show will fall for the regional humor, but even the most cynical viewer will find a few belly laughs to be had. Escanaba is a raucous romp that makes you feel both in on the joke and “from away,” straddling both familiar and strange with an earnest thread about the stories we tell ourselves and the identities we create, framed by family, tradition, and culture.

“Escanaba In Da Moonlight”runs through Feb. 18, so whether it’s a Valentine’s treat with your sweetie or some cabin fever relief, make the trip to the Upper Peninsula for a show that feels warm and filling as a Leinenkugel and a hot pasty.

Last modified on Wednesday, 07 February 2018 14:33


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