Restaging Animal Crackers, one of the Marx Brothers’ classic knockabout comedies of the 1920s, is a risky prospect at best. The unique mayhem of Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo is something that only an expert or a Marx fanatic should tackle. Fortunately, the Ojai Art Center has John Medeiros, a self-described “blithering fanboy” of the madcap Marxes, who helms the current production that runs through December 17. Medeiros knows all the ins and outs of the Marx Brothers’ act: Groucho’s rat-a-tat-tat wordplay, Chico’s deadpan confused Italian, and Harpo’s impish clowning, all of which are as fresh and funny as they were 89 years ago when Animal Crackers first took to the stage.
The plot, like all Marx Brothers productions, is irrelevant. This one has something to do with a stuffy socialite, Mrs. Rittenhouse, who wishes to show off a rare painting to her equally stuffy celebrity guests, one of whom is noted African explorer Captain Jeffrey T. Spaulding (Groucho), accompanied by his straight-arrow secretary Jamison (Zepp0) and two ruffian musicians, Ravelli (Chico) and The Professor (Harpo). Like all the Marx Brothers plays, Animal Crackers makes fun of snooty, self-important members of high society simply by letting the Marxes run roughshod over them. Much of the humor comes from the fact that only the audience thinks it’s funny; the characters who are the victims of the Marx Brothers’ maelstrom of mirth fail to find any of their lunacy amusing, especially their clueless, humorless hostess, Mrs. Rittenhouse, perfectly played by Tracey Sutton.
Leading the way is Sean Mason, who does a remarkable impression of Groucho Marx. Mason has all of Groucho’s familiar physical mannerisms perfectly in place, the leering eyebrow waggle, the stooped long stride (executed as if the world had a low ceiling), and the spontaneous wacky dance moves, the latter featured during an impeccable rendition of “Hooray for Captain Spaulding,” which became Groucho’s theme song throughout his career. Mason makes sure to do everything in Groucho’s Bronx accent, employing Marxian nonsensical U-turns into lines like “Well, art is art, isn’t it? Still, on the other hand, water is water. And east is east and west is west, and if you take cranberries and stew them like applesauce, they taste much more like prunes than rhubarb does” and of course, the oft-quoted “One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I don’t know.”
Daniel Mitchell is a soft-spoken Chico that is not quite as brash as he should be, but his faux Italian accent is excellent, as is his split-second timing in his deadpan repartees with Mason as Groucho. Maybe the best of all is the remarkable Anna Kotula as Harpo, who fits into her character like the proverbial glove. With her pliable face, Kotula perfectly projects Harpo’s mute anarchy as he produces improbable props from the pockets of his bottomless trench coat and chases girls from wing to wing. (We never really know what Harpo would do if he ever caught one of them and we doubt that he did either. The fun was in the chase.)
When seeing Mason, Mitchell, and Kotula perform, one appreciates the verbal and physical agility with which the real Marx Brothers honed their routines. Medeiros sacrifices speed for accuracy, and although the dialog and physical shtick are meticulously executed, the pacing is noticeably slower, to make sure everything comes out right. There are a few understandable slip-ups, but the gags keep coming and just about all of them work. At one juncture, James Baker, who plays pompous tycoon Roscoe W. Chandler, “mistakenly” calls Spaulding by his own character’s name. Mason “ad-libs,” “No, I’m Spaulding. YOU’RE Chandler,” and then said to an audience member in the front row, “Can I see your program?” – all to the delight of the audience. This faux faux-pas is, of course, in George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind’s ingenious original script, arising from an actual error that was later incorporated into the script.
The best gag of all might be the brief scene where the calculating butler Hives (part of an all-around outstanding performance by Gabriel Gentile) tries to set up a folding table, with Kotula (as Harpo) thwarting his attempts to unfold the legs while rotating the table. It takes the finesse of a fine juggler to do the things Harpo does in his act and Kotula replicates them all easily, all the while mugging adorably. She is simply a joy to watch.
The 1930 film version of Animal Crackers dispensed with many delicious musical classics composed by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, but some, including the wonderful “Three Little Words” and “Watching the Clouds Roll By,” have been gratefully reinserted into this stage version, performed by the two romantic couples in the play. The former is sung by nosy gossip columnist Wally Winston (Ezra Eells) and Mrs. Rittenhouse’s winsome daughter Arabella (KiSea Katikka), and the latter by amateur painter John Parker (Hayden Miller) and earnest ingenue Mary Stewart (Amanda Ballinger). All four sing splendidly while Eells and Katikka perform Kotula’s charmingly choreographed dances.
One song, “Everyone Says I Love You” was later used in the Marxes’ 1931 film Horse Feathers, sung here by Chico (miming his part on a miniature piano, whose brand name is Steinfeld instead of Steinway. References to two Marx film classics will be recognized by keen-eyed Marx Brothers aficionados: travel stickers on a steamer trunk that reference The Cocoanuts and Freedonia, the mythical kingdom from Duck Soup.
The exemplary cast also includes James Alderete as Zeppo Marx’s character, Horatio Jamison, plus the talents of Suzy Thatcher, Michael McCarthy, Cindy Kalmenson, Don Gaidano, Budhi Bourbon, and Sabastien Montgomerie.
The last time the Marx Brothers were seen on stage was in 1945 when they performed a few scenes from A Night in Casablanca. Since then, other than the Broadway production of Minnie’s Boys, few directors have taken on the challenge of duplicating the Marxes’ unique brand of physical and verbal comedy. Credit John Medeiros and his cast and crew for a wonderfully entertaining production that brings back all of the delights of this legendary act. Don’t miss it.
Animal Crackers plays at the Ojai Art Center through December 17. For tickets, visit ojaiartcenter.org. See the VC On Stage Calendar for dates and showtimes.