Ok, so to say that this review is going to be a tough one for me is an understatement. I mean look at me: I’m a glamorous plus-sized diva with a penchant for online shopping and the occasional pedicure. I’m a Rouge member of Sephora’s VIB loyalty program (if you don’t know what that means, look it up…it clearly indicates that I have a rather significant beauty addiction). Let’s just say that deer hunting and toilet humor are not exactly de rigueur in my everyday life.
The Greater Grand Forks Community Theatre (housed at the historic Fire Hall Theatre) opens their 2013-14 season with a strange little play about a family of deer hunting good ol’ boys from the upper peninsula of Michigan. The accents are thick and the humor is decidedly juvenile, but the cast and crew of this production have clearly labored to imbue this quirky show with an infectious homespun charm. Set in the Soady family’s hunting shack at the opening of deer season, the play is narrated by patriarch Albert Soady (CJ Leigh) and revolves around Albert’s oldest son Reuben (Hyrum Patterson) and his determination to finally, at 35, bag his first buck. Not bagging a buck may be no big deal to other men, but in the Soady family only one other relative had ever made it to 35 without accomplishing this feat, and his name was recorded in the family hunting journal with an aura of shame and ridicule. Reuben’s younger brother Remnar (Gabe Figueroa) has been bagging bucks for years and feels his older brother might be cursed; oddball family friend Jimmer Neganamee from Menominee (Jared Kinney) is along for the ride, shotgunning beer and displaying his legendary flatulence on several occasions. The cast is rounded out by Ranger Tom T. Treado (Jed Hendrickson), a DNR official who visits the Soady camp after having what he believes to be a religious experience (but which may be just another UFO sighting); and Wolf Moon Dance (Brooke Pesch), Reuben’s wife, an Ojibwe woman whose special “magic potion” may be the key to Reuben finally bagging his buck.
The men all handle their parts admirably; the characters are all a bit ridiculous, and the actors play them well, being just stupid enough to be entertaining while bringing enough complexity to each man to keep him from falling into the role of buffoon. Well, except maybe Jimmer; he is a buffoon, but in terms of the play that seems to be the point. Jimmer was abducted by aliens and apparently has never been the same since. His speech is strange, a lisping “shh” sound inflecting pretty much every syllable. He’s joined the Soady party for the annual hunting opener because he is a family friend, and because his odd and unpredictable antics provide a secondary storyline for the show that isn’t connected to this primordial “man vs. beast” plot being acted out by the Soady men. To introduce you to Jimmer, I found the following clip from the film version where Jimmer makes his first entrance:
Yeah, that happens.
As I was watching, I kept looking for the deeper meaning: some underlying wisdom about men and masculinity, about what hunting symbolizes for us in our modern culture that is increasingly separated from the natural world, anything to give this show another layer. I never found it. But that doesn’t mean it’s not there.
It seems to me that Jeff Daniels isn’t writing for me; he’s writing for an insider audience. He’s not going to waste any time convincing audience members like me that hunting together as a family is a magical experience – he’s just going to create that magical experience, and trust that those who know that feeling, who’ve hunted with their fathers and brothers and sons year after year, will recognize it and connect with it. Judging from the reaction of other members of the preview audience, the show succeeds in this, but it means that the show has a special challenge to reach the other members of the audience who, like me, don’t connect with the material and can only be sustained so long on fart jokes and booze gags before they get bored.
Luckily this production, under the meticulous eye of director Nicole Quam, mostly succeeds, and ironically it is the distraction of Jimmer and his constantly evolving strangeness that kept me the most tuned in. Ranger Tom is also an odd duck, telling the Soadys that he saw God before disrobing and falling asleep on their couch for no particular reason, but he’s not nearly as interesting as the almost indecipherable Jimmer. The set is dynamic and well put together, though it does lack a certain “lived in” quality” that would make it feel much more authentic; the Soady men don’t seem the type to have such well-maintained surroundings, especially at their seasonal hunting shack. The costumes are spot on: they are coherent, mesh perfectly with the setting, and tell the audience about the characters without seeming contrived or “costumey.” I was also glad to see that when Wolf Moon Dance makes her brief appearance at the end of the show, that she wasn’t in some sort of ridiculous buckskin outfit like the logo on a bucket of Land-O-Lakes buttery spread.
That is my one major complaint with this show, and it has nothing to do with this production but more to do with the show itself: its portrayal of Native American traditions is…problematic. It perpetuates a stereotype about Native Americans as being magical, mystical, primitive people who have strong connections to the spirit world. These stereotypes clearly originate out of the fact that Native American tribes had very different beliefs about the world around us, about spirits and animals, but these kinds of portrayals often mythologize Native Americans to the point that we can easily forget that they are real people. When Reuben does his ritual dance to keep out the bad spirits, it’s meant to look funny and make the audience laugh; there is nothing in that scene that reminds people that dance was a sacred act to many Native American tribes. I’m not saying you can’t still enjoy the show; I love Disney’s Pocahontas and though I know it does the same thing, I still cry every time Pocahontas throws herself on John Smith when he’s about to be executed. Damn you Disney, I just can’t stop myself from wanting to paint with every color of the wind. But as my mind is running just around the river bend and wishing that Kocoum would build me a fine house with strong walls (MEEE-ow!), I remind myself that this is not reality, that this does not depict Native Americans and their cultures accurately, and that as I’m watching I have a certain amount of privilege to watch this movie and be entertained and forget about the fact that it depicts a time in history that directly precedes genocide.
Now that I’ve gone and mentioned genocide, I hope I haven’t scared you off from seeing the show as it really does have some memorable moments and a certain jocular simplicity, and poor bewildered Jimmer is worth the price of admission alone. If you have a man in your life who thinks there is nothing at the theatre that could possibly interest him, then this show is the perfect opportunity to challenge that assumption. It’s sort of a backwoods American Pie with a small town feel, and it’s perfect for North Dakota as the temperature drops and we move more fully into fall, and all of the various hunting seasons that accompany it. You’ll have to watch the show to find out if Reuben does in fact bag his first buck, but the Fire Hall is sure to bag big audiences and plenty of laughs with this butch little play about family, food, and chasing after your dreams, shotgun in hand.
Tags: alien abduction, antlers, Brooke Pesch, CJ Leigh, community theater, community theatre, deer hunting, Disney, Disney's Pocahontas, Escanaba In Da Moonlight, Fire Hall Theater, Fire Hall Theatre, Firehall Theater, Firehall Theatre, Gabe Figueroa, Greater Grand Forks Community Theater, Greater Grand Forks Community Theatre, hunting, hunting shack, Hyrum Patterson, Janessa, Janessa J, Janessa J Champagne, Janessa Jaye, Janessa Jaye Champagne, Jared Kinney, Jed Hendrickson, Jeff Daniels, Jimmer, Kocoum, Land-O-Lakes, Miss Jaye, Nicole Quam, Nikki Quam, Pocahontas, Ranger Tom, Soady, The Jimmer, UFO, UFOs