Play is a treat any night of week

Masquers Theatre’s ‘A Don’t Hug Me County Fair’ is a sure-fire winner, don’t you know!

The full cast of “Don’t Hug Me County Fair,” minus Trigger. Left to right are: Bill Fauver as Aarvid, Cassie Woodard as Bernice, Brian Etienne as Kanute, Rachel Meyer as Clara, and Paul Brown as Gunner. (Masquers Theatre photo)

Cliff Buchan
News Editor

What more could you ask for? Some great acting. Some incredible singing. Excellent food.

It’s all tied nicely together this month in the Masquers Theatre Company dinner theater production of “A Don’t Hug Me County Fair” now on stage at Vannelli’s By The Lake. The play runs Friday and Saturday nights with a Sunday matinee through Sunday, March 25.

It shouldn’t be surprising that Masquers is putting on yet another stellar performance. It’s a summer given in Forest Lake and the troupe’s winter efforts are just as crisp and perhaps even more lively.

In the more intimate dinner theater setting at Vannelli’s in downtown Forest Lake, play patrons can almost reach out and touch the actors on stage. There is an unwritten interaction between cast and patrons that you don’t notice from the big stage at Forest Lake High School each summer.

For $70 per couple (play only admission of $18 is available if you choose not to dine), it’s a great night out. Any couple dining out can easily expect a $50 tab for two complete entrees and assorted beverages. Throw in two hours of hilarious stage time with some good singing and it is one of the best buys of the winter.

For anyone who saw the 2011 “Don’t Hug Me” production, the 2012 version is equally entertaining. With a cast of five (six if you count Paul Brown’s dual role as twin brother-sister Gunner and Trigger), it’s a snap following the characters who fill the stage at The Bunyan bar set in the fictional Minnesota town of Bunyan Bay near Ely. It’s a sizzling hot summer and the county fair is on.

The story surrounds the drama between Gunner and his wife Clara (Rachel Meyer) and the competition between Aarvid Gisselsen (Bill Fauver) and Kanute Gunderson (Brian Etienne) for the affection of Bernice Lundstrom (Cassie Woodard). Throw in a walleye fishing contest and a Miss Walleye Queen competition and you have the backdrop for a story that will keep you on the edge of your seat until the very end.

It’s a story told well with a host of foot-tapping songs that feature all the players. The lines in the play are spiced with an abundance of Minnesota slang (can you say there then) which at times, during some of the longer line sequences, seems to disappear, only to return. Much like the Coen brothers film, “Fargo,” this play makes gentle fun of the way Minnesotans are often perceived.

Play goers can’t help but like this cast. Fauver and Etienne’s competition for Woodard’s hand is an ongoing battle only spiced up by the arrival of Gunner’s twin sister, Trigger. The husband-wife story between Brown and Meyer is typical of a woman growing older gracefully and a man who has difficulty expressing his feelings to the one he cares about the most.

Bernice makes her pitch to become Miss Walleye as Aarvid handles the interview. (Masquers Theatre photo)

Brown and Woodard were the standouts in this vote. Who couldn’t like the stage to audience fawning of Woodard’s Bernice who so dearly desired to be Miss Walleye Queen, but faced the challenge from Trigger and Clara.

Brown was superb as Gunner and hilarious and perfectly cast as Trigger, complete with wig and dress. He literally produced tears of laughter from many in the crowd of 80 plus on Saturday night.

It was a great evening from start to finish.

Miss Eelpout Rebecca Sinn, right, and Miss Northern Pike Sharon Rodriguez were two of the servers at Vannelli’s for “Don’t Hug Me County Fair.” They present a sampling of the dessert menu here. (Photo by Cliff Buchan)

The food produced by the Vannelli’s chef was superb. The eight ounce Vannelli’s cut steak was so tender it could be cut with a butter knife. The broiled walleye with lemon, pepper and butter melted in your mouth and was large enough to win the “Don’t Hug Me” walleye contest.

The charbroiled boneless chicken breast was served at our table with a attractive medley of veggies and looked tempting. A vegetable lasagna was on the menu for non-meat eaters. The meal started with a tasty salad that was matched with baskets of hot dinner rolls.

If there was a drawback, it was moving food from the kitchen to the table. While the wait staff was pleasing and friendly, they were frustrated that some folks had to wait for their food. The boneless chicken arrived at our table of seven first and the other meals were slow in coming.

It was the same for the dessert delivery during the play’s intermission. While the fried ice cream on a tortilla shell was delicious, it arrived just minutes before the second act started with no real time to savor it.

Still, the quality of the food overshadowed any of the hiccups with the kitchen production. And it was just the second night of the production and the crowd was large. The service will get better as owners Ron and Nick Vannelli work out those bugs.

So who did win the Miss Walleye Queen contest?

Who was the champion of the walleye fishing contest?

Did Clara and Gunner work through their issues?

Did Trigger get arrested for impersonating a Forest Ranger?

Did Aarvid or Kanute win Bernice’s hand?

You won’t find out here. It’s worth a trip to Vannelli’s By The Lake to take in the play and the dinner theater to learn those answers.

For dinner and play tickets or play only tickets, simply call the Masquers Theatre Company Box Office at 651-464-5823 or go online to Show time is 2 p.m. on Sunday with dinner served at 12:30. Dinner is served at 6 p.m. on Friday and Saturdays with a 7:30 p.m. play time.

Kudos once again to Masquers for adding to the quality of life in Forest Lake and a big pat on the back to Vannelli’s for its partnership and adding a venue and food that are hard to beat. It is because of such sponsors and folks like the Hallberg Family Foundation that Masquers Theatre remains possible.

They need the public’s help if they are to continue. And for this night out, you won’t go wrong.

If you miss Brown on stage with Masquers, you’ll find him behind the pulpit at Faith Lutheran Church in Forest Lake on Sunday morning which is proof that there is a fine line between Saturday night and Sunday morning. When it comes to the stage, anything goes and it is all in good fun.

If Masquers chooses to continue with the “Don’t Hug Me” series of plays by Phil Olson next winter, theater lovers can only hope that “Don’t Hug Me I’m Pregnant” is next on stage.