“Duck Hunter Shoots Angel,” the poster reads, the giant white lettering splashed across a photo of a hunter with a gun being interviewed by two men in suits. The title is accompanied by other unbelievable things: “Fat cat owns 23 old ladies,” one headline reads, “Half man — half alligator” another says.
A story that appears to come straight from the front page of a flashy tabloid is next in line to be staged by the Penobscot Theatre Company at the Bangor Opera House.
Written by Mitch Albom, author of the popular novel “Tuesdays with Morrie,” the play follows a New York journalist sent to cover a mysterious angel shooting in Alabama. The comedy ultimately becomes an allegory about redemption with a heartfelt message, but not before laughter ensues.
Helping bring the story to life is New Yorker Jonathan Spencer, the lighting and set designer for the production. Spencer, who has been working with the Penobscot Theatre Company for more than 10 years, was first introduced to Maine’s theater scene by Scott R.C. Levy, a previous producing artistic director of Penobscot Theatre Company, whom he met at a dinner party.
“He said, ‘I’m moving to Maine to take over this theater,’” Spencer said, recalling the conversation he had with Levy. Levy told Spencer he would have him up to do a show, but Spencer said that most of the time, a conversation like that is filled with empty words.
“Every person in the world will say that to you at a dinner party and never follow through,” Spencer said, “But Scott said, ‘I’ll have you up to do a show,’ and three or four months later, he did.”
The first production Spencer worked on was “The Laramie Project,” a show in the 2005-2006 season about the reaction to the 1998 murder of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming.
Spencer, an associate designer on Broadway and United States and international touring productions, was stunned when he worked on the production — not because of its content but because of the audience’s reaction to it.
“There was a talkback, so I positioned myself in the back row — this was my first introduction to the audience of the Penobscot Theatre — and I waited to see what was going to happen. I had never really been up here before. And what happened for me was that I watched a group of hardy Mainers, a little rough around the edges, who had just watched this 2½-hour play — a very deep, emotional play that’s about, frankly, very liberal points of view — and I watched a conversation take place among that audience that was as intuitive to the themes and conversations that were taking place in that play as I’ve ever heard,” Spencer said.
“The level of sophistication with which they responded to it, reacted to it — I then learned that a very similar event had taken place in the Bangor area [ the murder of Charlie Howard, a young, gay Bangor man] and how that struck an emotional chord with them. I guess what I’m saying is that listening to that level of discourse made an impact on me with regard to this community and this audience,” Spencer said.
Levy left the company in 2011. Nathan Halvorson filled in as interim director before Bari Newport, the current producing artistic director, took over.
Spencer’s first production with Newport was “Boeing-Boeing,” which they both admitted wasn’t their strongest showing.
“I didn’t know how to work with you then,” Newport said to Spencer.
“Plus you were thrown into the deep end of the pool; it was your first week in town,” Spencer added.
Over the years they have created a collaborative relationship that helps them envision shows together. Their work on “Woman in Black” in 2013 was the beginning of that relationship.
“We had to figure out how we were going to use the set,” Spencer explained. “That necessitated that Bari and I get on the phone and have those conversations. We blocked the show together in tandem as director and lighting designer. I think that was the moment where we saw what we could do together more than what we could do apart.”
For “Duck Hunter Shoots Angel,” a “laugh-out-loud funny” show, as Spencer said, the challenge was in creating a “real” space.
“Under the cloak of an exceptionally comedic script, a show that’s very, very funny, there are a lot of things going on that are about human frailty, our relationship with God and whether or not God exists,” Spencer said. “I wanted the place to feel as tangible and real as possible, because the truth is, these most poignant spiritual moments, at least for me, happen in these very real places — they happen in the aisle at the grocery store.”
With about 30 different scenes and many challenging transitions, the difficult part of this play was creating the place which would then transform into different spaces.
“By and large it’s a unit set that doesn’t change, but it has lots of tricks,” Spencer said.
The set for this show depicts an Alabama swamp, complete with a unique feature that hasn’t been done by Newport and Spencer before — and that Newport insisted on.
“There’s mud. And the mud doesn’t just sit there — stuff happens with it,” Newport said. “I’m obsessed with action. To act is to do something. The word theater means ‘the seeing place’ — so something has to happen.”
In addition to the mud, Spencer and Newport wanted to create a space that would mimic movement in a swamp.
“Bari wanted it to be a little hard to move around the space — to traverse. This space will be filled with things underfoot,” Spencer said.
But at the center of it all was a simple notion, one that Newport repeated over and over again and made sure this production displayed: a lot of heart.
“The thing that she is stressing is — she calls it heart — I call it human frailty. The humanness of trying to figure these things out,” Spencer said. “People find higher power in community. People find higher power in the very defined idea of a deity — a god. Other people find higher power in helping others and being a service to other. There are lots of different places to find it. And with these rednecks rolling around in the mud, being hysterical — to me that’s the heart of this play. It’s about finding one’s sense of greater purpose.”
“Duck Hunter Shoots Angel” initially was planned for the February production slot but was moved to make room for “ Hair Frenzy,” a world premiere written by local Travis Baker. Newport insists on having a comedy in February — something that will make people laugh — and though “Hair Frenzy” certainly did the trick, she thinks “Duck Hunter Shoots Angel” will provide even more laughs.
“Bari recognizes that humor is integral to human nature,” Mary Budd, executive director of the Penobscot Theatre Company, said.
Budd called Newport and Spencer the unsung heroes of the show, who work to bring it all together for months before its showing.
“Production hinges on their vision,” Budd said. “It’s our hope that this will reach a wide audience of the uninitiated theater-goer but also that our longstanding subscribers and highly discriminating theater-goers will see the beauty of this as well.”
“Duck Hunter Shoots Angel” will show at the Bangor Opera House from April 28 to May 15, 2016. Tickets can be purchased at http://boxoffice.printtixusa.com/penobscot/eventcalendar, by phone at 207-942-3333 or at the box office.