Somewhere between Frances McDormand's police officer Marge Gunderson in the film Fargo and the Canadian stereotypes Bob and Doug McKenzie (Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas) of SCTV's legendary "Great White North" sketch lies the comic inspiration for Escanaba in Da Moonlight. The script, by actor Jeff Daniels, is best known through a film version in 2001 (directed by and starring Daniels), and generally receives only limited attention from theater companies. Boiler Room Theatre serves up the Nashville area's premiere mounting with mixed results.
The setting is Michigan's Upper Peninsula ("the U.P."), inside the "deer camp" cabin of the Soady family, where dad Albert (Scott Stewart) and his sons Reuben (John Mauldin) and Remnar (Andrew Derminio) have gathered on the eve of hunting season. The Soadys are joined by another local "Yooper," Jimmer Negamanee (Douglas Goodman), plus Ranger Tom (Scott Rice), a newcomer to this rustic, sparsely populated part of the world. (In fact, Ranger Tom is a "Troll," meaning he is originally from the Lower Peninsula, which automatically makes him below suspicion.)
The plot centers on Reuben, who is on the verge of becoming the oldest Soady to never have successfully hunted a buck. He attempts to change his luck by tampering with some of the usual Soady camping traditions, with some eerie results that play into the superstitious nature of the hunting party, including a belief in UFOs.
Yet most of the comedy here tends to derive from the principals' provincial ways, their quirky mode of speech and their homemade food and drink and local traditions (including pasties, earthy backwoods liquor concoctions and a lively game of euchre).
Daniels' penchant for one-liners eventually morphs into a broader, more farcical comedy zone, which includes a series of fart jokes and Jimmer's absurdist speech impediment. The hunting theme is pretty much swallowed up by a lot of banter that is hit-or-miss where laughs are concerned, and sometimes verges on labored.
Director Lisa Gillespie elicits spirited performances from the mostly veteran cast, including the ever-versatile Vicki White, who puts in a late, wordless cameo appearance as Wolf Moon Dance, Reuben's mystical Ojibwa wife.
Recommended for theatergoers who appreciate a light folksy comedy and simple fun.
For those needing a dose of the classics, Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House provides it — the great Norwegian playwright's masterpiece continues to reveal an interesting historical perspective on marriage and personal freedom 134 years since its first performance.
As director and designer for the new ACT I production, Kelly Lapczynski is in firm control, from a nicely appointed set to the suitable period costumes to the evocative classical piano music setting the tone for each of the three acts.
Dubbed a "featherhead" in the early going by her husband Torvald, Nora Helmer plays the coquettish, security-hungry female role strongly enough that hubby condescendingly declares her spendthrift behavior to be "just like a woman." It's no compliment, and their encounter — if it weren't a seminal moment in the history of world theater — could be mistaken for an exchange between husband and wife on a 1950s American TV sitcom.
It might even cross the viewer's mind that Ibsen's great opus sometimes plays out with the strangely clumsy energy of soap opera, its formal characters enacting their roles rather stiffly as the intrigue surrounding a well-intentioned financial manipulation in Nora's past threatens to bring disgrace to her marriage.
We are treated to a clear text in Lapczynski's adaptation, and her staging features understated performances from a cast of mixed experience and varying talent levels. Terra Buschmann's Nora is at least a consistent figure — her mind is always at work and her acting and body language make for interesting observation, all the way to the play's painful conclusion. Alas, only a fraction of that kind of presence typifies the work of the remainder of the ensemble. Ben Gregory as Torvald, in particular, seems tentative with Ibsen's dialogue, and while he looks the part of a man of "sure position and an ample income," his characterization achieves only minimal credibility.
Truth is, no one in the cast looks challenged to really push the boundaries of performance — which leaves us with an intellectually satisfying production that is begging for increased intensity.
The play continues through June 15 at Darkhorse Theater.
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