'Animal Crackers'

It's an Oregon Shakespeare Festival tradition: At least one play per season has to be just for fun — go for the laughs, go for the slapstick, let the actors pull out all the stops. This year, it's a production of "Animal Crackers," an early Marx Brothers' vehicle written by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind.

Nobody is as zany or irreverent as the Marx Brothers. They are pure anarchy. "Animal Crackers" sets the boys against the self-insulated, self-satisfied rich folk of Long Island just before the Crash of 1929.

Yes, the Marx Brothers, along with Kaufman and Ryskind, were "lefties." But, then, so was their audience by 1929 and certainly so into the 1930s. Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo made a schtick of "equalizing" status, deflating oversized egos and targeting clueless social posturing.

If you think "the 1 percent" are tone deaf today, they were even more so in the heady economic bubble of the 1920s. Old rich, nouveau riche and wannabe-rich scrambled for elusive social position. F. Scott Fitzgerald examined it with envy. The Marx Brothers outrageously poked fun at it.

"Animal Crackers" superimposes incomprehensible chaos on all the conventions of 1920s musicals — star-crossed lovers, overly plotted crimes, gorgeous showgirls, extraneous dance numbers and inane romantic songs. Drop into this rigidly programmed plot a clever wordsmith, a musical con man and a lovable satyr, and you have the Marx Brothers' formula.

The plot revolves around the newly rich Mrs. Rittenhouse (K.T. Vogt) and her pretentious attempts to win acceptance on a glamorous summer weekend on Long Island. She has invited her social rivals and the press to watch her triumph.

To this end, she has stolen away Hives, the butler (Jonathan Haugen), from the more established Mrs. Whitehead (Kate Mulligan) and her sister Grace Carpenter (Laura Griffith). She has invited the noted financier Roscoe W. Chandler (also Haugen). She is exhibiting an acclaimed painting, "After the Hunt," courtesy of its snobbish gallery owner (Jeremy Peter Johnson). She is planning an elaborate "French pageant" in which she will play Madame DuBarry. And, most importantly, she is honoring the famous African explorer, Capt. Jeffrey T. ("the T stands for Edgar") Spaulding (Groucho, exuberantly played by Mark Bedard).

Spaulding comes with his own entourage of sorts: the mute but ever-honking, ever-bird-dogging Professor (Harpo, deftly played by Brent Hinkley), the musician Emanuel Ravelli — who is paid not to perform (Chico, played by an unbelievably versatile John Tufts) — and a browbeaten secretary, Horatius Jamison (the straight man, Zeppo, Eddie Lopez). It's never quite explained how or why they show up with Spaulding but every time they appear on stage, mayhem ensues.

Over the course of the weekend, we learn that Mrs. Rittenhouse's daughter Arabella (Mandie Jenson) is in love with the gossip columnist Wally Winston (Johnson). The young newspaper photographer, Mary Stewart (Griffith) is in love with Mrs. Rittenhouse's protégé, artist John Parker (Lopez).

Mrs. Whitehead and Grace, in a snit, plot to replace the real "After the Hunt" with a poor copy. Parker plans to switch the painting with his copy of it to showcase his talent. Winston is looking for dirt on Chandler and learns he is really Abie Kabibble, a former fishmonger from Czechoslovakia.

Director Allison Narver keeps this three-ring circus moving briskly, utilizing actors playing multiple roles with elaborate costumes, rapid-fire scene changes, asides to the audience, a male chorus line that isn't and assorted other off-the-wall slapstick action.

Of course, the young lovers prevail, the painting is returned, the snobs get their comeuppance and Mrs. Rittenhouse's weekend is a success — all thanks to Capt. Spaulding and his sidekicks, as they sing the finale, "We Are Four of the Three Musketeers."

The Marx Brothers came out of vaudeville but took its conventions — and everyone else's conventions — and turned them upside down. Nothing was sacred. They offended every ethnic group equally. Groucho was the master of wordplay, puns, malapropisms and meanings turned inside out. ("Last night, I shot an elephant in my pajamas. What he was doing in my pajamas, I have no idea.") Chico played at being an Italian immigrant. Harpo made determined sexual pursuit adorable. They played to America's prejudices at the same time they methodically shot them down.

The world of the Marx Brothers is, in fact, not so different from ours today. Perhaps we need to step back and look at the historical perspective — where we've been and where we are now. As director Narver puts it, "a little frivolity can be serious business."

Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at rbkent@mind.net.

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