Deer hunting. Curses. UFOs. While many plays and movies are based on one or two of those topics, Escanaba in da Moonlight, which opened last weekend at the Backdoor Theatre under the direction of Michael Sherry, attempts to meld all three together in a backwoods comedy that also includes whiskey going bad, cars catching on fire, magic potions, imaginary bucks, and one park ranger who had a spiritual experience. It’s a recipe for something, that’s for sure. Originally written for the stage, and later adapted into a movie, by Jeff Daniels, this out of this world comedy gave the old “laugh-basket” a good workout. Daniels is one of the most eclectic actors of our on-screen generation, ranging from silly comedies such as Dumb and Dumber to revered dramas, including the excellent HBO series The Newsroom. His script writing skills are equally eclectic, mixing the silliness he is known for with a deeper story of family love.
Set in the in the U.P. (for all you Flatlanders, that’s the Upper Peninsula) of Michigan, the Soady family is getting together for the start of deer season at the “World Famous Soady Deer Camp”. Family patriarch Albert Soady, played by Bill Painter, opens the show and immediately lets us know that he is going to “tell us a story.” The show moves between the events of the story, and Albert occasionally breaking the 4th wall to give us his commentary on the happenings. At 35 years old, youngest son Reuben is in danger of becoming the oldest Soady to have never shot a deer, which has earned him the nickname of the Buckless Yooper by the locals. Reuben’s older brother Remnar has shot a deer every year since he was 9 years old, and follows the same ritual every year to ensure that he bags the biggest buck. The Soady clan are joined by Jimmer Negamanee from Menominee, a local legend who swears he was abducted for a weekend by aliens. When he came back, he started speaking in a strange way and drinking anything that is set in front of him. They are interrupted in their pre-opening day ritual by Ranger Tom, who has just been up on the ridge and claims that he saw a bright light which he could only assume was the face of God.
Painter plays the fatherly figure of Albert quite well. From the moment he walked on the stage, he embodied the rough around the edges, old codger of the family with a wonderful mix of fatherly love and cantankerous old man. He has a good sense of comedic timing, even though at times he seemed to expect more than was given from the audience. Painter has a very strong voice with fantastic diction, two things that are underrated but much appreciated by the audience.
Mark Finn does a fair job of playing Remnar, Reuben’s boastful brother who is dead-set against breaking tradition until Albert talks him into it. He handles the accent pretty well and really seems to have a connection with the character in the moments when Remnar has his composure. But when the hunters are getting spooked, Finn would overact in a way that seemed completely out of character for Remnar. If he will just tone it down a little, he’ll be more believable.
The same cannot be said for Sheldon Clanton as Reuben however. Albert tells us early on that neither of his children are very bright. Clanton plays the role too “smartly”, in that his line delivery and reactions come across more as an actor that is trying to play dumb, rather than a dumb character. He has his moments, such as when he is reciting the chant to help ward off his curse, that the ridiculousness of the situation comes out. His conversation with Ranger Tom on what he sees out the window, however, is much to matter of fact with no hint of the absurdity it really is. Clanton suffers from trying too hard to be dumb, instead of just letting go and getting into the character.
Corey Rauscher makes his initial appearance as Jimmer with great energy, explaining to everyone that his “Chevy shookashi” and “burst into shames”, before demanding to have a “cold beersh” to “boomedeboom”. Rauscher stays in ridiculous character throughout the show, but had a tendency at times to go a bit too overboard with his actions and focus pulling, especially when other characters were talking. He has great comedic timing, but he plays Jimmer like he’s the love-child of the village idiot and a lunatic. A foaming mouth is all that’s missing. It would have been preferable for him to be peculiar and eccentric instead of stark raving mad. One thing that Jimmer has proven is how versatile Rauscher is on stage. This character is completely different than his turn as Marius in last year’s Les Miserables. Rauscher’s ability to play completely different roles will serve him well going forward.
When Ranger Tom comes on the scene, he claims he just had a vision of God. Understandably, the hunters are all skeptical. When he starts talking about his experience it is only natural that he would come across as loopy. Keith Maxwell did a nice job with the character, especially when his lines were overlapping with the others as he rambled about his vision and the hunters discussed what to do with him behind his back. But there was only room on the stage for one crazy person, and as Rauscher’s character was there first and had more lines, we as the audience could not fully appreciate Ranger Tom’s contributions to the story.
Brandi Walker as Reuben’s Native American wife, Wolf Moon Dance, deserves respect. She had maybe two or three lines and was only on stage in the last 10 minutes of the show. Many actresses in this area would turn their noses up at this, but Walker seized the opportunity and did a great job. From the moment she walked into the cabin, she was a strong and wise wife for Reuben. She had been supporting him all along and she is perhaps the true heroine of the story.
In any show that deals with a family dynamic, one of the most important things for a cast to have is chemistry. We need to believe the relationships between the characters have been formed over years of interaction. We know Albert feels pity for his son being “buckless.” We know Remnar wants his brother to break the curse. We know Reuben wants to make his father and brother proud. We know this because the lines tell us that, but at many points we don’t feel it based on the interactions between the characters. This lack of chemistry hurt the production overall, but as the show progresses in its run, these relationships should start to gel, and tighten the show up quite nicely.
Another thing that could have helped the overall feel of the characters would have been much more of an emphasis on the U.P. dialect. It was obvious that the actors tried to affect an accent of the region, but it wasn’t consistent. When the cast isn’t “on-point” with this dialect some of the jokes are lost. The accents were dropped quite frequently, and at times sounded more Texas than Michigan. Perhaps a viewing of Strange Brew or Fargo would have helped them nail it down.
The beautiful set designed by Dan Kulka set the initial tone to the show quite well. For those who have stayed in a hunting cabin, there was no mistaking the old second-hand furniture, the camp stove propped up on bricks, the stark walls with miscellaneous pictures and advertisements for ammo and beer. It feels like we are in the middle of a hunting cabin deep in the woods, and Painter’s entrance, fumbling for the light as if he were in the darkness, was a nice touch. The detail even extended into the set dressing, when dust flies upon the removal of the couch cover. These subtle details really set the scene to open the show. The lighting was done well, though the strobe light sequence went on a bit too long. Kudos to Dick Kulka, Paul Loskot, Kat Johnson, Erin Sherry, David Cerreta, J. Erwin Soell, and Ethan Swagerty for the masterful execution of the technical elements of the show.
All in all, Escanaba is a very enjoyable evening at the theatre. There are things that could have been worked on more from a directing standpoint, especially the development of the characters and chemistry between them, as well as some blocking given to the actors did more to obscure them and did not help to further the story, but audiences are sure to enjoy the situations that arise. We are in Texas after all, and I’m pretty sure we have our fair share of hunters in Texoma. For those of you that like to hunt, this is the perfect show for you, and I imagine you would recognize some of your own opening day rituals. If you enjoy eyebrow-raising, hair-brained yarns that start out innocent and end up larger than life, make your way to Backdoor Theatre some weekend this month!
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