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Vision Messed 

If you frown over fart jokes, you won’t like Escanaba. You’ll also miss one of the Civic’s funniest-ever productions

click to enlarge TAMMY MARSHALL
  • Tammy Marshall

A man with a rifle brings it to bear directly at us. He cocks the hammer. Takes a big, calming breath.

On the way in to the huntin’ lodge for openin’ day of deer season, you see, he’d had a vision. (Maybe it was all those PBRs he drank — but to him, it was a vision.) A vision of a huge buck, dancin’ on the highway, as he was drivin’, right before his eyes. So he raised his .30-.30 (this being the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, he calls it his “turdy-turdy”) and then he took aim at that buck and “blew him off the face of the earth.”

This is David Gigler as Remnar Soady — all mismatched plaids and camo pants — inviting us into his world for opening day here at the world-famous Soady Deer Camp somewhere out in the woods outside the town of Escanaba, where boys become men when they bag their first buck, and all the women have come to the conclusion that all the men are merely morons.

Escanaba in da Moonlight (through April 25) is one of the most inhibition-shattering comedies you’re likely to see, and one of the Civic’s funniest ever.

The play’s enclave of eccentrics is enriched by director Troy Nickerson’s gift for portraying men making fools of themselves; set designer Peter Hardie’s man-cave of a rustic huntin’ lodge; Hardie’s ominous lighting (there are creepy things out in the Michigan woods); Jan Wanless’s costume design (plenty of flannel and ear flaps); and Jeff “Dumberer” Daniels’ comic onslaught of a script. The Soady boys keep having visions; unclear about why they never reach their aspirations, they usually fire off a few rounds just to work off their frustrations.

Escanaba in da Moonlight, which has been produced all over the country ever since Daniels premiered it in 1995 at the little Upper Peninsula theater that he oversees, is full of sex jokes, gross-out jokes, cockamamie conspiracy theories and concern for the male pecking order. It’s not men behaving badly; it’s men behaving normally.

As a bonus, Act Two has the Mother of All Extended Fart Jokes.

And there, my friends, is where the comedy lingers.

Wes Deitrick — with dumb geniality straight out of The Red Green Show, and with the befuddled looks and excess of flannel to prove it — acts as the clan’s patriarch and the audience’s surrogate. If scratching yourself constantly, fantasizing about 18-point bucks, staying in a hootch-induced stupor all day, and making fun of anyone who’s not from northern Michigan seems like it might be a foreign experience, Deitrick’s Albert Soady is there to guide you.

The plot (more like a series of boyish squabbles over nothin’, but funny) revolves around the fact that the other Soady son, Reuben (Civic newcomer Scott Miller, persuasively desperate) has dishonored the family by remaining, at age 35, “buckless” and “without venison.” (He’s “just not a straight shooter.”)

As Reuben pursues his buck-bagging quest, the action gets entangled with alien abductions, maple-flavored whiskey and Native American rituals.

In a show that hurls its eccentricities at you relentlessly, the most eccentric characterization belongs to Todd Kehne as Jimmer Negamanee of Menominee. (Say that fast five times, and you’ll sound just like him. Jimmer hasn’t been the same, you see, since strange things happened to him out in the woods.) Kehne’s antic fits convey his puzzlement over being surrounded by backwoods boys who don’t realize that they’re just as insane as he is. (Slightly better diction, is all.)

Both the script and the acting sometimes veer off into the kind of excessive silliness that can make an audience become self-conscious about being directed to laugh instead of simply laughing. The eccentricities of the forest ranger and the predictability of who’s behind Reuben’s vision-quest (and why) both intrude on the fun.

But not much, and not for long. Daniels and Nickerson create so much hilarity that people were wiping away tears, they were laughing so hard. (I noticed this, right after wiping away my own.)

That fart joke, it’ll really blow ya away, yah sure.

Escanaba in da Moonlight fires away at Spokane Civic Theatre on Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 2 pm through April 25. Tickets: $21; $19, seniors; $17, students; $8, student rush. Visit spokanecivictheatre.com or call 325-2507.

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