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Curtain Call: Zany trio creates OSF holiday show for the Bowmer

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"It's Christmas, Carol!" players (from left) John Tufts, Brent Hinkley and Mark Bedard channel their inner Marx Brothers as they ham it up for the camera on the OSF holiday show set. Photo by Jenny Graham.
Brent Hinkley takes his cue in a scene from "It's Christmas, Carol!" with fellow actors John Tufts, Mark Bedard and Kate Mulligan. Photo by Jenny Graham.
John Tufts and Brent Hinkley put up their dukes in a scene from "It's Christmas, Carol!" with Mark Bedard looking on. The trio wrote OSF's first-ever holiday show, at the Bowmer Theatre through Jan. 2. Photo by Jenny Graham.
Taking a shallow dive into the inventive minds of John Tufts, Brent Hinkley, and Mark Bedard

Mark Bedard, Brent Hinkley and John Tufts — each with an impressive theatrical résumé — have chalked up a collective total of 32 seasons with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

During that time, they have played roles in a diverse collection of plays, including Shakespeare, the classics, musicals, comedies, adaptations and new works.

They may be best known for their zany tours de force as Groucho, Harpo, and Chico in two OSF Marx Brothers productions, “Cocoanuts” and “Animal Crackers.” They reveled in the antics, ad libs and anarchy of the characters, and the audiences loved it.

So, what are these three monkeys up to these days?

They’re appearing at the Bowmer Theatre now through Jan. 2 in a silly, songfilled show they wrote for OSF’s first-ever holiday special, “It’s Christmas, Carol!” It skewers Dickens, the holidays, and Shakespeare, with a dose of the Marx Brothers and fractured carols thrown into the mix.

And, yes, Bedard sports a Groucho ‘stache, Tufts’ outfit is Chico-inspired, and Hinkley carries Harpo’s squeeze horn. These guys are nothing if not true to their roots.

How do you explain a trio like this? Would DNA testing reveal links to anybody named Larry, Curly or Moe? What shaped these twisted minds? Perhaps an examination of the suspects’ backgrounds can provide some perspective.

John Tufts

Tufts was born in Dallas and grew up in Atlanta. Was it a family of creatives?

Sort of. Tufts explains:

“I mean, I was always impressed with my father’s ability to be creative with the truth.”

The Tufts, he confesses, are famously non-creative. And non-singers.

“My grandmother often tells a story about how horrified she was one night to hear my parents attempting to sing me to sleep,” he said. “There’s nothing like the sound of dying crows to comfort a crying baby.”

The first performance that made an impression on him was in a play he saw at age 8.

“It was the kid in ‘Les Miserables.’ Gavroche. Man, when I saw that kid, I was so jealous.”

The first time he stepped on stage himself was at summer camp in 1990.

“I walked across the stage and had one line: ‘Oh, I’m just looking for the bathroom.’ Huge laugh. Granted, the audience was 8-year-olds and ‘bathroom’ is low-hanging fruit. Didn’t matter. I was hooked.”

He knew he wanted to be on the stage since the age of 12, but it was later on when he knew acting was the career for him.

“It was probably around the time I knew lawyering or doctoring wasn’t,” he cracked. “But it didn’t really sink in until I started working at OSF.”

Wanting something and understanding why are two different things. When he started working at the festival, he had an epiphany.

“I thought, this is what I want. All day, every day. The company, colleagues, Shakespeare, the bricks, the bar afterward. Wake up tomorrow, repeat. If I could find a way to pay my mortgage with that, I knew I’d made it.”

It was Tim Bond, the former associate artistic director during Libby Appel’s tenure, who brought Tufts to OSF.

“I auditioned and he had this huge smile on his face afterward. When I got the offer, I was over the moon.”

So, in January of 2004, he drove his wheezy little car from Los Angeles to Ashland.

“When I came over the pass and made my way into town, I was in heaven.”

Tufts worked with Bedard and Hinkley before the Marx Brothers comedies, but not as a comedy trio. There was almost instant chemistry on the “Animal Crackers” stage, probably from the shared terror of the responsibility of portraying those geniuses, he said.

Their biggest challenge in making that kind of comedy was reintroducing people to an older style.

“Puns, wordplay, malapropisms. Those things get a bad rap in today’s comedy because people think they’re dumb. But puns have always been dumb, and the Marx Brothers knew that. It’s their joy and unapologetic delivery that make it so infectious.”

What roles are on his bucket list?

“There are so many. Hamlet, though I’m getting old, and honestly, who wants to see another 40-something white guy complain to his mom about stuff? Also, Leontes in ‘Winter’s Tale,’ Jerry in Harold Pinter’s ‘Betrayal.’”

Tufts enjoyed working with Bedard and Hinkley to create the holiday show.

“It was very collaborative. We met a few times a week on Zoom. We outlined a rough story and then improvised dialogue with each other. Then we’d write it down and refine it.”

The most fun about creating the play is the same thing that makes theater fun in general for him.

“It’s the weirdos I get to be with every day. I love going to work and hanging out with a bunch of dorks who like to play dress-up.”

Brent Hinkley

Hinkley was born in Indianapolis, moved to Flushing, N.Y. when he was 2, and then to Santa Monica when he was 12.

“My father was an actor,” he said. “Hence, the moves to New York and California. He would pack up the family and take us with him while pursuing his career.”

As a theater brat, he had plenty of exposure to the theater arts.

“My dad was in an off-Broadway show called, ‘How to Steal an Election.’ I was 8. I remember there was a lot of singing and dancing and actors running up and down the aisles. I liked the singing and dancing, but the actors being so close and interacting with the audience completely floored me.”

By the time he was playing Harpo in OSF’s Marx Brothers productions, he was a pro at audience interaction.

His first time on stage was when he was 8 and played Pa Carnes in “Oklahoma.” How did that go?

“It went well, if you consider a second-grader holding a shotgun and pretending to be 60 years old entertaining.”

A decision he made in high school was probably most indicative of career choices he would make down the line.

“The tryouts for the baseball team were on the same day as auditions for the school play. I couldn’t do both. I really wanted to play baseball, but, realistically, I figured I had a better chance at being in the play. So, I auditioned. That turned out to be a good decision.”

He went on to study at UCLA, earning a BA in theater arts.

What brought him to OSF?

“I thought it was RSC (Royal Shakespeare Company). I was looking for fish and chips.”

(Pause for laughs.)

He has done it all at OSF, diving into serious dramatic roles, performing in musicals, doing Shakespeare, Dickens, Jane Austin, and more. But there’s no question in his mind about his favorite.

“Hands down, it’s playing the Harpo characters,” he said. “It’s pure joy and laughter. I’ve gotten to work with John and Mark and my wife, Kate Mulligan, each time. Heaven on earth, truly a wonderful dream.”

Switching to the broad comedy style of the Brothers Marx was more a bonding experience than problematic.

“The chemistry was pretty much instant, as we were all scared to death and hanging on for our lives.”

He is enjoying performing in “It’s Christmas, Carol!” Besides having fun working with the old crew again in a play filled with music and laughs, there is a distinct advantage that comes from being one of the writers in a show that includes some free-wheeling ad libs.

“I don’t have to remember any lines. That’s a big relief.”

Mark Bedard

Most everybody in Bedard’s extended family can sing. Aunts and uncles on his mother’s side had sing-alongs at family gatherings.

“I always loved to hear the harmonies,” he said. “I became obsessed with picking out harmonies in songs.”

It was a Tim Rice, Andrew Lloyd Webber musical that turned him on to the wonder of show biz.

“My mother took me to ‘Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat’ when I was a child and it blew me away.”

He went to an all-boys Catholic high school and played football all four years. When football was finally over in his senior year, he suddenly had free time he never had before.

“I decided to audition for the high school musical because I had noticed that girls from the all-girls school would also be in the plays.”

There he was, a jock who could sing, so they cast him as Sky Masterson in “Guys and Dolls.”

“Needless to say, it was a blast. I kept doing plays just for fun in college, and was pretty aimless in my studies.

“Finally, a director named Tom Amen sat me down and told me I could do this for a living. I had never truly thought it was possible before then. Once I wrote down theater as my major, I was so terrified that I became an A student.”

He transferred to the University of California, Irvine, earned a BA in theater, and decided to move to New York City to follow his dreams. But fate intervened.

“I had auditioned for OSF right out of college in the summer, but I didn’t hear back from them.”

In mid-December, two weeks before he was supposed to fly to New York, he was still scrambling to line up a place to live. Then the phone rang.

“Out of the blue, OSF called me and said someone had dropped out of their contract at the last minute. Could I be there for rehearsal in two weeks?”

He canceled his plane to NYC, loaded up his 1988 Dodge Colt, and drove to Ashland.

As to the DNA question about Larry, Curly and Moe, Bedard wasn’t aware of any links to the Three Stooges.

“But I do have an Uncle Mo, two cousins called Mo, and my daughter’s nickname is Mo.” (Cue “Twilight Zone’ theme.)

In tackling the Marx Brothers, in addition to the crazy fun, there are still challenges.

“The biggest challenge is continually trying to embrace the spirit of anarchy you read about in all the accounts of their live performances,” he said. “Every once in a while lightning strikes and we’re able to tap into the spirit of those brothers. When that happens, it’s very satisfying. But always terrifying.”

Three roles stand out as Bedard’s OSF favorites: Truffaldino in “Servant of Two Masters,” Georg in “She Loves Me,” and Touchstone in “As You Like It.”

What roles are on his bucket list?

“In the world of Shakespeare, there’s Richard III. I was slated to play him before the pandemic, but Covid took that from me. In the world of musicals, there’s Harold Hill.”

How did OSF approach the trio about creating a holiday special?

“They asked us to write them a gritty holiday drama full of angst, surrounding a murder plot. ‘It’s Christmas, Carol!’ is what we came back with.”

It’s a bit unclear exactly how the three divided work on the project — who wrote the script, the music, the lyrics, etc.

“Let’s just say that I brought the pizza, John brought the booze, and Brent brought the hammer. It’s been a smashing good time.”

For more information, updates and tickets, go to osfashland.org.

Reach Ashland writer Jim Flint at jimflint.ashland@yahoo.com.