TALES OF TRANSFORMATION are never what they seem. When Kafka turned hapless Gregor Samsa into a bug, he was really telling us that the poor clerk, burdened by his family and trapped in his job, had always been something of an insect. When Beauty's Beast finally loses his fur, we see that loving a person includes seeing beneath superficial appearances.
Theater Schmeater, ends June 26
But what about a sportswriter who's bitten by a Moose Spirit on a hunting trip and starts to become a moose?
There is no shortage of explanations as to what's happening to poor Ray (P. Adam Walsh) in John Moe's new comedy, Montana Moose. According to Ray's wife, Jeanne (Peggy Gannon, sarcastic but supportive), it's probably tetanus and he needs to see a doctor. But new-age hippie chick Sharah (Andrea Benson, maddeningly ethereal) is convinced that Ray's increased hairiness and sprouting antlers are caused by hunter's remorse. His co-worker Ken (Yusef Lambert) is sure that it's all part of a vast conspiracy by the NBA for world domination. And his former-pro-wrestler buddy Lonnie (John Farrage) doesn't quite know what's up, but is willing to pop open Ray's beer cans when his hands become hooves.
Even the Moose Spirit himself doesn't give us any answers, except to intimate that every once in a while, some person's got to turn into a moose. In a truly awe-inspiring moose suit, Stan Shields steals the show at his every appearance, partly because he's so clearly pissed off at having to walk around in a moose suit. His manner of resignedly folding his antlers in so he can peer at poor Ray through various windows speaks volumes about the weight of being an agent of providence.
Moe's gentle comedy is really about nothing so much as the funny ways people react to things they don't understand. His hilariously understated script, and Andy Jensen's direction, pulls some superb performances out of his cast, particularly Lambert's scheming paranoia and a marvelously relaxed performance from Farrage as the sort of guy who was made for the insane theatrics of professional wrestling. Best of all is Walsh, whose transformation from man to moose is worthy of Lon Chaney Jr. His scenes with the increasingly bewildered Gannon are wistfully hilarious, and their sincere performances make the happy but absurd ending truly touching.
Jensen's direction is somewhat at odds with Brian Jackson's ambitious set, and his decision to have Ray's transformation performed in front of the audience loses the potential for some great sight gags. There is also a series of mini-flashbacks that never quite gel with the rest of the narrative. But despite this untamed sloppiness, Montana Moose is always precisely about what it's about, a man who turns into a moose, and you've got to admire that sort of narrative integrity. Even if you can't figure out just what the heck it means.