A Northern Wisconsin Hunting Comedy With Depth
American Folklore Theatre’s Guys & Does is more than a musical comedy with A Northern Wisconsin Accent.
There’s a definite kitsch element that goes into any theatrical show that dons a northern Wisconsin accent. The American Folklore Theatre has a pretty solid history of developing Wisconsin-based musicals that have depth beyond the trappings of north woods culture. AFT’s latest north woods musical Guys & Does debuted last year. Going well beyond musical comedy with emotional depth, G & D also addresses aboriginal and ecological issues that articulate deeper concerns without weighing-down what is essentially a light, casual Wisconcentric musical comedy.
The plot has numerous parallels with the Jeff Daniels 2006 comedy Escanaba In Love. Daniels’ comedy is about a son trying to get his father to accept his new wife in a remote cabin during deer hunting season. G&D switches thing-up. Fritz Dingleheimer (Bo Johnson) is taking his daughter’s soon-to-be fiancée Duane Puddles (Lee Becker, who also co-wrote the show) on a hunting expedition so that the two of them can get to know each other a bit better.
The initial dynamic between the two men would likely feel a bit weak were it not for charismatic performances by Johnson and Becker. On the surface, the two characters seem to be flat stereotypes. Fritz is a low-key, silent man trying to make the best of a hunting expedition with a stranger. Duane is kind of a nebbish who has brought a pop psychology book on the trip in order to better understand how to bond with Fritz. Bearing an impeccable north woods accent, Bo Johnson tackles the silent, respectable hunter role with a great deal of respect. He has an impressively strong grasp of the specific rhythm and cadence of Northern Wisconsin humor. Becker plays Duane as a bright, socially awkward guy. Not bearing as strong a north woods accent, Duane seems destined for life beyond the region, but only if he can overcome the kind of intimidation he feels around the father of his future fiancée.
Doug Mancheski rounds out the cast in dual roles as a big game hunter from Texas and the illusive white, golden antlered buck he’s hunting. As the Texan, he speaks with a heavy drawl that quite nearly makes his speech incomprehensible. The fact that this never gets annoying says quite a bit about Mancheski’s comic abilities. The great white buck with golden antlers (named Staghart of the Golden Horns) is probably the single cleverest bit in the entire musical. With speech patterns somewhere between Colby and Shakespearian English, the character has a strange otherworldly quality about him—vaguely familiar yet also majestic in kind of a bizarrely comic way. Playwrights Frederick Heide and Lee Becker fuse together a kind of mythology around Golden Horns that seems based on traditional American aboriginal legends. When the Texan shoots off part of his golden rack, Golden Horns approaches Fritz, asking the hunter to help him mate with the lone white doe in the woods. As bizarre and superficial as the comedy seems at times, the central plot has more than enough depth to keep Guys & Does interesting through the final scene.