Reviewed by Nancy Oliveri
How many cool things are there to say about Jeff Daniel’s hilarious comedy Escanaba in Da Moonlight? Plenty, but it will be way more fun for you to just go and see what I mean, eh?
Albert Soady tells the tale of an unforgettable night at his family’s deer camp in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where everyone uses a “Yooper” accent and adds “eh?” to the end of most sentences. (Yooper is short for U-P-er or one from theUpper Peninsula.) The time is the present, but Albert flashes back to the first night of deer camp in November 1989.
For anyone who has ever gone to a deer camp (I haven’t) or who remembers the old song about it, the setting is a fertile spot for family members to take verbal pot shots at each another while trying to preserve their own places in the history of the camp.
Brothers Reuben (Joe Hartman) and Remnar (Dan Mian) Soady join their dad, Albert (Paul Romero), in the shabby uber-man cave that is their camp in the deep wood of Michigan, only to find that Reuben has called upon his Native American wife, Wolf Moon Dance, to use her Ojibwe traditions to help him bag his first buck. Ever. If it doesn’t happen for him this year, he’ll go down in Soady family history as the oldest man in the family to remain “buckless,” a dubious and mortifying distinction.
The lengths he goes to prevent this make for some hilarious physical bits of comedy involving porcupine pee, moose gonads and sap whiskey. Sophomoric, sure, but funny as hell, and a wonderful device to address the real story that’s going on here … a man’s need to come to terms with his role in the family dynamic. I’d rather laugh than cry while getting there any day. I love the way Hartman, Mian and Romero interact with one another, especially since there were some last-minute role and cast changes. They are supremely believable as people who have known each other forever.
Another subplot and character involves the one-time alien-abducted Jimmer Neganamee from Menomine (you have to say it so it rhymes), energetically and flatulently played by Scott Isert. Jimmer plays a critical role in Reuben’s catharsis, which we’ll just say is “boom a dee boom” explosive. Isert’s portrayal of a man who now “talks funny” and drinks a lot as a result of his abduction provides many laugh out loud moments in the show.
Wolf Moon Dance, played by the willowy CRT newcomer Emily Goodell, makes a brief but memorable appearance at camp, although she may not really be there at all. And that’s another wonderful thing about Daniel’s play. There is an “air” of mysticism in the story that touches more than one character. Even Ranger Tom (Chris Nickerson), the Department of Natural Resources officer who stops by the camp, ends up having a vision quest of his own.
The show is directed and the set is gorgeously designed by Chenango River Theatre’s Artistic and Managing Director Bill Lelbach. The set gives the audience lots to look at as the story is played out by this wonderful ensemble of Equity and non-Equity actors. (CRT is the only theater in a shotgun’s range around here to offer points toward union membership.)
E.D. Intemann’s lighting design is a very important component of the show, as are the costumes designed by Barbara Kahl. Buckskin-colored overalls and union suits (one-piece long johns) are perfect “in da moonlight.” Liz Howell has a lot to keep track of in the unsung role of stage manager.
I had listened to WSKG’s Bill Snyder interview cast members and loved how they stayed in character for the whole thing. It’s a great interview, which you can hear at http://tinyurl.com/qgshn5u.
IF YOU GO: Performances continue at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday through Sept. 6 at Chenango River Theater, 991 State Route 12, Greene. Tickets are selling out fast; call 656-8499 visit www.chenangorivertheatre.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.