Oct. 5 2011 12:00 AM

Purple Rose Theatre revisits ‘Escanaba,’ where good taste is always out of place


Must be it’s an acquired taste: moose
testicles, dried and ground up and mixed with honey and sage, a
mysterious elixir that turns drunken Upper Peninsula Finnish deer
slayers into native American warriors capable of  bagging the biggest buck.

Yes, we are revisiting playwright Jeff Daniels’ classic
campy characterization of the complex customs of the mysteriously
mighty Michigan men of the Yooper deer camps. 

Return with me, if you will, to the legendary “land of
the red buck,” Escanaba, where the absence of days of sunlight is
celebrated as  – drum roll, please — “Escanaba in da Moonlight.”

Dennis Crawley’s set design lacks only spiders and their webs; it is a truly authentic-looking deer camp cabin. 

It’s hard to say exactly which piece of well-acted stage
behavior makes visitors to Chelsea’s Purple Rose Theatre laugh the
most. Is it director Guy Sanville’s  elaborately
staged Rube Goldberg set up of an extended fart sequence, complete with
slow-motion strobe light and explosive sound effects? Or is it the
scene in which a particularly potent potpourri of Potawatami  porcupine piss gets poured over Ranger Tom?  

If this were one of those highly effective parodies of  “Pure
Michigan” seen on YouTube, it might very well be described as Puerile
Michigan. Come to think of it, it actually is a highly effective parody
of  the “Pure Michigan” ads. 

Jim Porterfield, the crusty and cantankerous father-figure Albert,  presides over the ritualistic mayhem of the Soady family deer camp, where  male-based
slovenly behavior is celebrated and where crushing empty beer cans over
one’s head and throwing the cans all over the place is seen as
hilariously funny.

Albert and his two equally nutcake-y sons, Rueben and
Remnar, portrayed respectively by Michael Brian Ogden and Matthew
David, twist and shout through much of Act One, firing shotguns inside
the cabin, followed by with furious rough-and-tumble sibling stage

Verbal attention is given to stories about  proverbial rutabaga pasties and yesteryears of  family buck-hunting.

The Soadys are eventually joined on
stage by Jimmer Negamanee from Menominee, an even more crazed character
— played to intense fart-worthy insanity by Wayne David Parker — whose
inarticulate speech provokes yet more raucous laughter from the erudite

Exaggerated accents and a lot of screaming and yelling
substitute effectively for acting in this production, as it appears the
laughing folks in the cheap seats cannot tell the difference. Yuk yuk —

There is, eventually, a point to this story: that poor
Rueben has yet to bag a big-headed multi-antlered buck, despite coming
up on his 33rd year. Your heart goes out to him. 

“Escanaba” set attendance records when it was originally
produced at Purple Rose in 1995. It was a hit all over again when it
was revived in 1997, and it was successfully filmed (with Daniels as
Rueben) in 2001. There is something inexplicably primal about this
play, some archetypal visceral thing that otherwise cerebral
Michiganders embrace and enjoy. For the life of me, I cannot figure out
exactly what it is.

‘Escanaba in da Moonlight’

Purple Rose Theatre

137 Park St., Chelsea Through Dec. 17

3 p.m. and 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; 2 p.m. Sundays

$25 Wednesdays and Thursdays; $35 Fridays and Saturday and Sunday matinees; $40 Saturday evenings

(734) 433-7673