Review: “Escanaba in da Moonlight” produced by TheatreFIRST at Live Oak Theatre in Berkeley Is Funny but Marred by Disturbing Native American Stereotyping

(Charles Kruger)

This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)
This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

There is no doubt that Jeff Daniels’ play, “Escanaba in da Moonlight” is really funny, if not exactly high brow. In fact, the humor in this outrageous comedy about a bizarre family of losers at a hunting lodge in rural Michigan makes The Three Stooges look like Noel Coward. We’re talking fart humor, food humor, bodily fluids humor, drunken humor and more. But, I defy anybody, no matter how prudish, not to find something to laugh at.

All of this is expertly directed by Michael Storm and performed with abandon by a stellar cast of comedians. In particular, the very distinguished Bay area Shakespearean actor Julian López-Morillas has a helluva time playing the eccentric patriarch of this merry crew of misfits. The design elements are also excellent, especially Martin Flynn’s convincingly realistic setting.

Unfortunately, this production has a huge rampaging elephant in its living room that demands to be recognized. Much (not all) of the humor involves crude stereotyping of native Americans and native American traditions. This includes Screen Shot 2014-02-18 at 12.31.46 PMmaking fun of Indian names, as well as an intended-to-be-funny parody of narrative American ceremonial dance and chant. I understand that the non-native characters in this play who butcher the ceremony are not meant to be the brightest bulbs in any chandelier, but I still felt uncomfortable.  In the final sequence of the play, one of the character’s native American wife appears as a sort of deus-ex-machina in stereotypical Indian costume while absurd new age music whistles through the loud speakers.

I did not find this part of the evening at all funny. In fact, for quite a few minutes, I sat in the theatre with my face set in anger and astonished disbelief.

While beginning to consider this review, I puzzled how I should respond. I certainly found the play funny and remarkably well-constructed, and I very much admire Theatre First as a company. I hesitate to write so critically about a fine theatre company, especially as they settle into their new home at Live Oak Theatre. This is a company that deserves subscribers, but, I canot help but conclude that they need to be called out for this unfortunate misstep.

I will tell you how I reached that conclusion. I discussed this play and my concerns with a Native American acquaintance who does not seem to be a prude. I told her that the play was riotously funny, and well performed, but that some of the humor disturbed me and I wondered what she thought. She asked me to describe some of the jokes. I told her about the character whose Native American wife had nicknamed him “Bear With Three Legs” and the sequence parodying a ceremonial dance. She gasped. She looked at me, and I saw her eyes water. She asked, “How is that possible? In Berkeley? In 2014? That is very offensive.”

I have chosen not to provide a star rating for this review. If readers are interested, I hope they will see the play for themselves and let the producers know what they think. It is a discussion that ought to take place.

For further information, click here.

“Escanaba in da Moonlight” by Jeff Daniels, produced by TheatreFIRST. Director: Michael Storm. Set: Martin Flynn. Lighting: Michael Palumbo. Costumes: Casssandra Carpenter. Properties: Devon Labelle. Sound: Ryan Lee Short.

Albert Soady:  Julian López-Morillas. Remnar Soady: Kevin Karrick. Reuben Soady: Saren Oliver. Jimmer Negamanee: Damien Seperi. Ranger Tom T. reado: Andy Alabran. Wolf Moon Dance Soady: Laura Domingo.

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