Fudgesuckers beware. You’re not in the flatlands any more. No, siree. You are in Yooper Territory, now, where UFOs drop in, the maple sap ferments and Ojibwe magic conjures up cures for curses.
This is not just any old kind of calamity. No siree. We’re talking about the kind that makes a man go his whole adult life without a bagging a buck at the Soady Family Deer Camp in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Now, how Reuben Soady keeps from becoming the only male Soady not to have a rack of antlers on his rumpus room wall before his 35th birthday is the point of this here story.
Rather, this here play, “Escanaba in the Moonlight,” being performed at the Bangor Opera House by the Penobscot Theatre Company. Producing Artistic Director Bari Newport is sticking by her decision to offer local theatergoers a zany escape from winter each February. This season’s show is the funniest since “Guys on Ice,” a musical ode to ice fishing, was performed in 2015.
“Escanaba in the Moonlight” was written in the mid-1990s by actor Jeff Daniels for his Chelsea, Michigan, theater company. In penning the two-act piece, Daniels apparently used the Harry Dunne ( “Dumb and Dumber”) part of his brain rather than the Will McAvoy ( “The Newsroom”) side.
Newport has assembled a cast of mostly local actors who wring every laugh and then some out of Daniels hysterical script. Her expertise at casting and ensemble building shines in the staging and pacing of “Escanaba.” The director keeps the action moving and builds to a bizarre, frenzied, I-wouldn’t-have-believed-it-if-I-hadn’t-seen-it ending that left Saturday’s opening night audience practically weeping with laughter.
Leading the cast and the Soady clan is New York-based actor Craig Bockhorn as Albert. He regales the saga of his son Reuben’s quest to bag his buck before his fateful birthday and interprets Yooper — Upper Peninsula lingo — for the audience. Bockhorn, whose name alone should have gotten him the part, also serves as straight man for many of the jokes.
He is a solid professional who is at ease on stage with his less seasoned cast members. Bockhorn shines as Albert the authority figure who is flummoxed by none of the bizarre goings on at the Soady Family Deer Camp and has a solution ready for every crisis.
The brothers Reuben and Remnar are brought vividly to life by local performers Matt Madore and Cory Osborne, respectively. The two perfectly capture brotherly sibling rivalry, almost to the point of trying to prove which one is more number than a pounded thumb. Madore gives Reuben an unexpected sweetness and sincerity in his efforts to lure a buck into his gun site. The character easily could have become whiny and irritating but Madore never lets that happen.
Osborne is unrecognizable from his recent turn as the enchanted prince in PTC’s holiday show, Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast.” Sporting an unprincely beard and less than regal flannel, Osborne is a fine foil for Madore. They portray the competitive siblings so symbiotically, it’s hard to believe they aren’t related or didn’t spend hours together in middle school spitting at each other.
The comic genius of “Escanaba” is Brad LaBree as Jimmer Negamanee. While many in the U.P. have seen UFOs, according to Albert, Jimmer actually survived an abduction. This caused him to talk funny, as if he’s lost all his vowels.
It takes a few minutes to adjust to Jimmer’s speech pattern and understand what he’s saying but LaBree somehow makes the character’s garbled speech pattern understandable. He also provides much of the physical comedy for the rest of the cast to react to and nearly steals the show with a portrayal that gives humanity to what could have been a cartoon character.
Allen Adams as Ranger Tom T. Treado and Eve A. Dana as Reuben’s wife, Wolf Moon Dance, round out the cast. Adams is perfect as a U.P. newcomer who can’t believe what he sees. Dana gives a magical and regal presence to the show in a brief but vital appearance that resolves the plot.
Jonathan Spencer’s set and light design give the deer camp an authentic look and feel down to the smoke that elegantly wafts from the camp woodstove. The sagging furniture and faded photographs taped to a wall will be familiar to Bangor theatergoers whose families have had seasonal camps for generations. They also provide the actors with ample space to move around and execute the physical comedy vital to the success of “Escanaba.”
Costume designer’s Kevin Koski, with few exceptions, gives the cast a well-worn collection of what looks like cast-off clothing even the local thrift shops would reject. His creme de la creme in “Escanaba” is the fur hat worn by LaBree. It is impossible to tell if is raccoon, rabbit, skunk or alien and it defines Jimmer as clearly as his speech defect does.
“Escanaba in the Moonlight” is a great escape into silliness from the bitter cold, near constant snowstorms and political strife of February 2018. It won’t tax your brain, but it just might break your funny bone.
“Escanaba in the Moonlight” will be performed through Feb. 18 at the Bangor Opera House by the Penobscot Theatre Company. For information, call 942-3333 or visit penobscotthreatre.org.
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