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27 March 2012 @ 06:29 pm
Oregon Shakespeare Festival 2012: Animal Crackers  
ANIMAL CRACKERS

Hello, I must be going!
Hurrah for Captain Spaulding, the African explorer, skirt chaser and wise-cracking guest of honor at a posh Long Island house party. High jinks meet high society when he and his cronies mix it up with social climbers and stolen paintings. Written for the Marx Brothers, this slapstick madcap musical busts out with zany songs and lavish dance numbers. Released as a film after the 1929 Wall Street crash and recently adapted, it proves that you can’t keep an anarchic comedy full of pungent one-liners down.


I’ve never seen the 1930 Animal Crackers film. In fact, I’ve never seen a Marx Brothers anything. So it may seem odd that this was the first play my fiancé and I saw at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival this year. But Seanie has told me several times over the course of our relationship that I really should give Groucho, so I thought that a play was just the thing.

If any of you are as woefully ignorant as me, here’s a quick rundown of the plot: Wealthy Mrs. Rittenhouse (K. T. Vogt), is hosting a gala to unveil a famous painting in her home. Her rival in society, Mrs. Whitehead (Kate Mulligan), wishes to humiliate Mrs. Rittenhouse, so with her sister Grace (Laura Griffith) she plots to replace the painting with an imitation. Meanwhile, a painter named John Parker (Eddie Lopez) and his reporter girlfriend Mary (also played by Griffith) wish to substitute their own copy of the famous image to promote his skill and give Mary something fresh to write about.


Ravelli (John Tufts) and The Professor (Brent Hinkley) do some sparring. Photo: Jenny Graham.


If this seems complicated and confusing, don’t worry. The plot is actually pretty unimportant, a minor framework housing the wacky shenanigans of the cast. After all, these aren’t merely actors playing characters. Mark Bedard is Groucho Marx playing Captain Spaulding, John Tufts is Chico playing Ravelli, etc. But really, once the cast has sung “Hooray for Captain Spaulding!” the audience forgets all about him and Ravelli and the Professor anyway. All that matters is that Groucho, Chico and Harpo (Brent Hinkley) are up on stage once again, riffing off each other and shooting one-liners in rapid succession.

Since the Marx Brothers were originally a vaudeville act, there are many nods to the traditional staging of those shows. Some of them are pretty cool! For example, in two scenes a line of life-size marionettes are suspended from a frame worn by an actor. When he lifts his arm, they all lift their arms. When he kick-steps, they kick-step. It’s a perfect chorus line. When used at the opening of the show, it really set the mood of the play as something zany and silly.

But some aspects of the play didn’t seem to translate so well . The play is nearing ninety years old, and some of the humor is no longer in vogue. Ravelli’s over-the-top Italian stereotype isn’t exactly PC, and if you remove the nostalgic “Oh, he’s one of the Marxes!” factor it isn’t that funny. Don’t get me wrong, he’s got some very good lines, but when taken as a whole that kind of character in comedy just seems old-fashioned and a little past its expiration date. But as I said before, I had no previous Marx experience. I’m sure that for fans of the brothers, these little quibbles will make no difference.


Captain Spaulding (Mark Bedard) entertains at the Rittenhouse home. (Ensemble). Photo: Jenny Graham.