Monday, March 26, 2012

Animal Crackers: Hijinks

The cast of Animal Crackers with Mark Bedard (centre). Photo: Jenny Graham.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of Animal Crackers is scrappy but entertaining, and it’s fun to be reminded not only of the early days of the Marx Brothers but also of the freewheeling (and almost free-form) flapdoodle musical comedies of the 1920s. Animal Crackers opened on Broadway in 1928, before the Depression altered the style of the musical, seeding in elements of satire, urban sophistication and bittersweet elegance. It was written by two of the most skillful purveyors of loony-bin wisecrackery, George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, and no doubt it was rewritten many times in rehearsal to accommodate the Marxes’ improvisations. Marx aficionados know thick swatches of the dialogue by heart – most of it made it into the 1930 movie version, where it’s played at a dizzying speed that offsets the early-talkie staginess. (The Marxes’ film debut, The Cocoanuts, also began as a Broadway show.) What gets sacrificed in the Paramount version are the secondary romantic couple – no great loss – and most of the Bert Kalmar-Harry Ruby songs. The OSF production, which was directed by Allison Narver, not only restores them but tosses in a few others, like “Three Little Words” (one of the best known of their songs, and the title of the M-G-M musical bio with Fred Astaire and Red Skelton as the two tunesmiths) and “The Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gives to Me.”

Animal Crackers went back on the boards in the mid-eighties: Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. resurrected it with great success, and Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company picked it up to tie up its 1987-88 season. I saw the Huntington revival, and it was grand fun. The show was given the deluxe treatment, with a cast of twenty-four, but these days no regional theater could afford that kind of personnel. OSF makes do with an ensemble of ten: everyone is double (or even triple) cast except for the trio channeling the Marx Brothers and K.T. Vogt in the Margaret Dumont role, Mrs. Rittenhouse, and the chorus is made up simply of the supporting cast. Like Trinity Rep in its recent staging of His Girl Friday, OSF makes a virtue of necessity by daring us not to recognize actors who have zipped offstage in one costume and resurface in another and using stage tricks to eliminate some of the bodies. A double phalanx of butlers is played by two singers, each manipulating a rack of manikins: that’s the best one. We can mourn the passing of the era of big musical revivals, but you have to applaud these companies for inventiveness and cheek. A Broadway production probably couldn’t get away with it – a regional company should be able to fall back on the relationship it’s built up with local audiences – so every time someone mounts a new version of a “golden age” musical (most recently On a Clear Day You Can See Forever) we’re confronted with the striking sparseness of the chorus backing the showpiece numbers.

Brent Hinkley, Jonathan Haugen and John Tufts. Photo: Jenny Graham.

The OSF Animal Crackers has mediocre scenery and costumes (by Richard L. Hay and Shigeru Yaji respectively) but a good lighting design (by Geoff Korf). It feels overlong – in the second act because the threadbare plot, about various copies replacing a famous painting being swapped at a Long Island party, begins to wear on you, and in the second half of the first act because of the interminable piano solo that was a Chico Marx novelty. And there really are too many ballads (“Three Little Words” is the only one you’re likely to remember afterwards). But the dialogue is just as uproarious as ever, and Mark Bedard, John Tufts and Brent Hinkley do a top-notch job of impersonating Groucho (as Captain Jeffrey T. Spaulding), Chico (as Emanuel Ravelli) and Harpo (as The Professor). They don’t add anything of their own, but who would want them to? The Marxes’ characters are iconic; it’s unimaginable that an actor might mess with them. Bedard gets Groucho’s irascible ironic tone and proto-absurdist acting- out down perfectly. Years ago I directed a production of The Threepenny Opera set in Depression-era the thirties with Mack’s gang as the Marx Brothers, and I gave the student actor who played Groucho free rein to interpolate one-liners and routines from their movies; he may have stretched out the show’s running time by about a quarter of an hour, but I’ve rarely seen an actor look like he was having so much fun. Bedard conveys that kind of showman’s delight. By contrast, Vogt looks straitjacketed into the Dumont part; it’s a joyless piece of mimicry. Of the supporting cast, Eddie Lopez, doubling as the poor young artist John Parker (who’s squiring Mrs. Rittenhouse’s flapper daughter Arabella, played by Mandie Jenson) and in the thankless Zeppo role of Captain Spaulding’s secretary Horatius Jamison (pronounced like the condiment), is especially game.

The performance I saw was more than half filled with high school kids, and they belly-laughed through it. I discovered the Marx Brothers in college and watched their Paramount movies – The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, and the sublime Horse Feathers and Duck Soup – over and over again. (When they moved over to M-G-M they did get to make A Night at the Opera, but the movies acquired an overlay of kitsch and became hopelessly inflated.) It warmed my nostalgic soul to think of these teenagers finding this particular inroad into a slice of American pop culture that’s now more than three-quarters of a century old. Hooray for Captain Spaulding – hooray, hooray, hooray.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review, The Boston Phoenix and The Christian Century and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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