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‘Moonlight’ shines brightly on Thingamajig comedy

Jeff Daniels clearly has a soft spot for Midwesterners—and Hollywood  humor. How else to explain his quirky trifle of a comedy “Escanaba in Da Moonlight?”

Daniels is best known as a solid Hollywood film actor, playing lovable lunkheads in acclaimed films like “Pleasantville,” “Terms of Endearment” and “Dumb and Dumber.” But Daniels also maintains a love for the Midwest he grew up in by founding and writing plays for The Purple Rose Theatre in Chelsea, Mich.

In its Pagosa Springs premiere at Thingamajig Theatre Company, “Escanaba in Da Moonlight” shows how well-attuned Daniels is to capturing quirky Midwestern slang and culture by focusing on the escapades of five “Yoopers” (Upper Michigan Peninsula residents). Super-suspicious to the hilt, these endearing guys go on a “cursed” 1989 hunting trip north of the title Michigan town.

It’s all recounted by the grizzled narrator Albert Soady (Andy Donlon), father of two not-so-bright grown sons, Rueben (Tim Moore) and Remnar (Skip Wee). Problem is that at age 35, Rueben has never ‘bagged a buck’ in his life.

To change his luck, Rueben deploys a variety of curse-breaking schemes cooked up by his Native American wife, Wolf Moon Dance (Ali Rohrbacher). And, naturally, these schemes wreak havoc on everyone including the once-alien-abducted hunter Jimmer Negamanee (Dave Armbrecht) and a freaked out Ranger Tom T. Treado (Mark Brown), who strangely becomes prone to disrobing.

Laura Moore directs this light comedy skillfully, consistently milking the laughs from her largely middle-aged cast playing up Daniels’ testosterone-pumped characters. Never over exaggerating their yooper accents, the actors avoid behaving like they’re Saturday Night Live cast members mocking a type of yokel instead of actually embodying them. The accents are subtle, but evident and effective.

John Santangelo’s hunting shack design for Daniels’ play is appropriately rustic and teems with memorabilia bringing an extra touch of authenticity. The set really shines when you figure out what it’s actually constructed out of — this is the stuff great designers conjure up. Special kudos goes to lighting designer David Trudeau who creates some amazing effects with Santangelo’s innovative design. They work together beautifully and lay the foundation for some powerful and funny scenes. 

Thingamajig Theatre’s “Escanaba in Da Moonlight” is largely harmless fun full of good belly laughs. Daniels illustrates a particular group of Midwesterners quite well in this play. If you enjoyed Thingamajig’s previous “yooper” offering of “Guys on Ice,” get ready to keep laughing, because you’re in for a real treat again.

Thingamajig Theatre Company presents “Escanaba in da Moonlight,” by Jeff Daniels, showing at the Pagosa Springs Center for the Arts March 16-April 1.

This show is suitable for ages 13 and up.

Tickets can be purchased by visiting www.pagosacenter.org or calling 731-SHOW.

“Escanaba in da Moonlight” is produced by the Thingamajig Theatre Company with special sponsorship by The Pagosa Springs SUN and 2011-2012 Season Sponsor, Citizen’s Bank of Pagosa Springs.

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