A north woods comedy takes to the Venice Theatre stage with Escanaba in Da Moonlight.
By Kay Kipling
If you’ve ever spent any time in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan—or even if you haven’t—you may appreciate Jeff Daniels’ play Escanaba in Da Moonlight, now showing at Venice Theatre.
The U.P., as it’s called, is evidently a pretty unique place, at least in Daniels’ version of things, which centers on a family deer camp at the start of hunting season. The story unfolds at first in the words of family patriarch Albert Soady (Tom Bahring), who starts off by telling us we may not believe everything he says. Sure enough, Escanaba is a north woods tall tale, one complete with UFOs and alien abductions, magic Ojibwa Indian potions, and—forgive me—farts so potent they can stun a catatonic man back to consciousness.
At the center of this comedy is the problem faced by Albert’s son Reuben (Jefferson Halpin), who in his mid-30s has never yet successfully bagged a buck. Considering the longstanding Soady tradition of deer hunters, that hurts, especially since younger brother Remnar (Dean Chandler Bowden) has certainly shot his share. Even Jimmer Nagamanee (William Czarniak), whose speech impediments and prodigious capacity for alcohol may be traced to that aforementioned alien abduction, has been luckier with bucks than Reuben.
So Reuben’s Native American wife concocts something sure to break his curse. And maybe that potion is somehow accountable for the strange white light and the ominous sounds that surround the deer camp…or maybe, as Ranger Tom Treado (Eric Schneider) believes, it’s God…or maybe it’s an incredible creature called a bearwok. Whatever it is, it causes quite a frenzy among the hunters, who run into each other screaming a lot, especially in Act II.
While it may be vulgar and extreme, Escanaba can also be very funny at times. The cast for the most part handles those U.P. accents well (think Canadian, really), although a few lines are indistinguishable (some are meant to be, as dialogue overlaps). Czarniak in particular deserves credit just for his willingness to do things onstage (like downing tremendous quantities of fluids in a messy manner) that most of us would balk at.
Donna Buckalter’s set design feels authentic and is always interesting to look at, with its collection of license plates, animal trophies and frosted windowpanes, although it’s surely much roomier than any real deer camp, due to the size of the stage. There’s a great deal of energy in the show, which may appeal more to men—and to Michiganders, hunters and lovers of fart jokes—than to those with more rarefied tastes. But most audience members should probably be able to squeeze out a few laughs here.
Escanaba in Da Moonlight continues through Feb. 1; call 488-1115 or go to venicestage.com for tickets.