You go to "Animal Crackers" knowing if it's off even a little it'll be a disaster. But the revival that opened Saturday night at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is a triumph of controlled anarchy and nostalgia, and a particular triumph for actor Mark Bedard, whose job is merely to fill the shoes of Groucho Marx.
What the show is not is an updating or any post-modern cute stuff. Directed by Seattle's Allison Narver, it celebrates, on Richard L. Hay's jaw-dropping Deco stage, a Broadway that nobody present could possibly remember.
But the Marx Brothers, like Sherlock Holmes or Batman, never quite go away.
It's been more than 80 years since "Animal Crackers" was on Broadway and nearly as long since the brothers became movie stars. Groucho trouped on with radio and TV's "You Bet Your Life," whose theme song, "Hooray for Captain Spaulding," is played here by pianist Darcy Danielson and a five-piece combo on the set.
The brothers remained pop icons, their schtick perennially reprised by fans from John Lennon to Alan Alda to Woody Allen, who included Groucho's "Hello I Must Be Going," also from "Animal Crackers," in 2009's "Whatever Works."
But it's one thing to get a joke here and there and another to track an evening of often topical gags in a musical that's so old it doesn't even fit our idea of what a Broadway musical is.
When "Animal Crackers" first opened, the '29 Crash hadn't happened, Charles Lindbergh and Babe Ruth were heroes, and "Abie's Irish Rose" had just closed on Broadway.
The latter provides one of the show's shameless puns in this exchange between Groucho (Bedard) and Chico (John Tufts):
"Didn't you ever see Habeas Corpus?"
"No, but I see Habeas Irish Rose."
If you knew who the Marx Brothers were in 1928 you knew "Abie's Irish Rose." Today maybe not. But an opening night audience whooped and howled its way through this adaptation of George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind's script by Henry Wishcamper, confidently directed by Narver. The production keeps some of the Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby songs that weren't in the movie version and throws in a few others.
Songs like "Who's Been Listening to My Heart" and "Why Am I so Romantic," sung by young lovers, reflect both the brothers' vaudeville roots and the developing Broadway musical, which still resembled a variety show. Of course, none of this prevents the brothers from vamping it up. Bedard introduces one number as "Somewhere My Love Lies Sleeping "… with a male chorus."
Society matron Mrs. Rittenhouse (K.T. Vogt) is throwing a bash for Captain Spaulding (Groucho, Bedard), the African explorer, and plans to unveil a famous painting. Mrs. Whitehead (Kate Mulligan) and sister Grace (Laura Griffith) plan a switcharoo with a cheap imitation to embarrass their hostess. Meanwhile, starving artist John Parker (Eddie Lopez), aided by his girlfriend, reporter Mary Stewart (Griffith), has produced a killer copy that Mary aims to substitute for the original to impress everybody with John's talent.
Throw in flirty Arabella (Mandie Jenson), gossip columnist Wally Winston (Jeremy Peter Johnson), and Roscoe Chandler (Jonathan Haugen), a rich financier with a secret. Drape them all in Shigeru Yaji's gorgeous '20s costumes. Then add Groucho, the musician Ravelli (Chico, Tufts), The Professor (Harpo, Brent Hinkley), and straight man Jamison (Zeppo, one of three roles played by Eddie Lopez), and watch the lunacy take over.
Eugene O'Neill it ain't. But plot was seldom more than an excuse on which to hang the unleashed spectacle that was the Marx Brothers in full anarchic force.
Here is Harpo throwing his leg over the arm of a man offering to shake hands. Chico playing "I'm Daffy Over You" and unable to stop (the song, which sounds like the 1958 McGuire Sisters hit "Sugar Time," followed Chico like the Captain Spaulding tune followed Groucho), and shooting the piano keys.
And here is Bedard/Groucho wise-cracking, "Ever since I met you I've swept you off my feet." And, when accused of bigamy, "Of course it's big of me." And, "One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I don't know."
And, "Then we tried to remove the tusks ... but they were embedded so firmly we couldn't budge them. Of course in Alabama, the Tusk-a-loosa."
In true Marx Brothers-style, they throw stuff into the audience, appear to leave the theater, toss in stuff that sounds like they're going off-script (hard to say for sure), including cracks aimed at other OSF plays. Did I mention some of the most eye-popping puppetry you'll ever see?
The tradition of comedy is inclusive, ultimately incorporating characters into some larger body or system. The Marx Brothers subverted this model in the spirit of Groucho's remark that he wouldn't want to belong to any club that would have him for a member.
Here the gang starts out already included in Mrs. Rittenhouse's society, then rips it asunder, upping the ante as it goes, absurdity on absurdity. Almost a century on, the proof of the pudding is the ongoing abundance of that most subversive of forces, laughter.
Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. Reach him at email@example.com.