Lots of plays might be called “chick plays.”
Boy, is this ever not one of ’em.
This riotous comedy is a cross between The Three Stooges, “The Red Green Show” and “Dumb and Dumber” – which makes sense, since it was written by Jeff Daniels of “Dumb and Dumber” fame.
It’s set in a hunting camp in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, with lots of Youper jokes (Youper, as in U.P.-er). It also has what is undoubtedly – no contest – the most extended fart joke ever seen on the Spokane Civic Theatre stage.
Describing that scene may be the best way to explain exactly what “Escanaba in da Moonlight” is all about. It seems that Reuben Soady has gone into some kind of trance, brought on in part by the trauma of being buck-less. There are no smelling salts at the Soady deer camp, so his dad and brother have to improvise. They figure the only thing that will shock Reuben out of his coma will be a sniff of one of Jimmers Negamanee’s prodigious gas attacks.
So they prop up Reuben by Jimmers’ bunk and wait for the blast. Director Troy Nickerson milks this scene for every, uh, whiff of physical comedy, including having the Soadys pull the sleeping Jimmers forward by the ankles so that Reuben’s nose is planted right in the critical area.
And it goes on like that for about five more minutes.
If this doesn’t sound funny to you, stay away from “Escanaba in da Moonlight.” As for me, it actually suited my mood quite nicely on opening night. I found the entire show to be a solid, well-crafted hoot.
That doesn’t mean I wasn’t aware of the show’s shortcomings. Daniels has not given these characters much of a plot, and what plot he has given them involves an incomprehensible mishmash of mystical nonsense involving … what? UFOs? The voice of God?
And, of course, the characters are complete redneck stereotypes, drinking whiskey, shotgunning beer, and having an incomplete grasp of personal hygiene. Remnar Soady, played with loutish good fun by David Gigler, has been wearing the same shirt for decades.
And those Upper Peninsula accents – they sometimes sound like a cross between Canadian, Irish and Frances McDormand in “Fargo.”
But Nickerson gets a lot of things right, too. His cast plays the comedy broad – but never too frantic. Wes Deitrick anchors the cast as the Soady patriarch; Scott Miller is funny and well-cast as the unlucky Reuben; and Thomas Heppler runs around in his underwear, for complicated reasons, as Ranger Tom.
The wildest performance comes from Todd Kehne as Jimmers, a skinny, bearded loon who comes off as a cross between an Old Testament prophet and the Unabomber.
The designers are especially important in this production. Peter Hardie has built a marvelous, rough-hewn cabin interior, decorated with moose heads, duct-taped furniture and a smoke-spewing stove.
The costume design team, led by Jan Wanless, gives the characters a perfect combination of flannels, camo and Cabela’s.
This show is all slapstick and no substance, but a theatergoer cannot subsist on a steady diet of serious issue dramas. Sometimes, jokes about porcupine pee are just what you need.