Review: The Madness of George III (Chicago Shakespeare)

  
  

The real King Lear

  
  

King George III (Harry Groener) and the royal family greet their subjects in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's The Madness of George III. Photo by Liz Lauren.

  
Chicago Shakespeare Theater presents
   
The Madness of George III
   
Written by Alan Bennett
Directed by Penny Metropulos
at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Navy Pier (map)
thru June 12  |  tickets: $44-$75  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Talk about life imitating art. Like the fictional King Lear of Shakespeare’s harshest imagination, in the late 18th century King George III of the troubled House of Hanover descended into madness, then briefly emerged from it as he realized that a king is mortal and that others have suffered as much as he. He too had vicious offspring: two sons – the fat and foolish Prince of Wales, later George IV, and the foppish Duke of York – were every bit as ungrateful as Goneril and Regan (and he had no Cordelia to redeem the curse). George was temporarily “cured” by a tough-love regimen: A monarch who had never been contradicted in his life was restrained by strait-jackets and strapped to a chair like a thief in a pillory. If not worse, the treatment was as vicious as the malady.

Harry Groener as the ailing King George III and Ora Jones as his devoted Queen Charlotte in Alan Bennett's The Madness of George III. Photo by Peter Bosy.If Lear’s story is tragic, George’s is pathetic, so great is the gulf between his real illness (porphiria, a medical and not a mental degenerative disease) and the neo-medieval physicians who think the solution is just a question of bloodletting, poultices, and a daily inspection of the chamberpot. It’s too easy to say that George was unhinged by the ingratitude of his American subjects in daring to revolt—or that his peace of mind was subverted by parliamentary plots hatched by his enemies the Whigs (under the unscrupulous Charles Fox). (The government’s Tories, under William Pitt, were not above exploiting the addlepated king as he forfeited control over almost all his functions and functionaries.) His was a classic case of hubris: The body’s conditional state betrayed the monarch’s absolute power.

Alan Bennett’s much-praised 1991 dramatization of this unpleasantness (made into Nicholas Hytner’s superb 1994 film with Nigel Hawthorne as the humbled king) recalls Thomas Hogarth’s most vicious caricatures: It conjures up a dysfunctional dynasty as fraught with friction as any family and a political circus in which Whigs and Tories behave just as badly as our bad boys do in 2011, not 1785.

Penny Metropulos’ all-engrossing staging is a marvel of perpetual motion. Its energy is coiled and concentrated in Tony-nominee Harry Groener’s piledriving performance in the dual title role (the madness as much as the king). In this awesome fall from grace we watch the symbol of the then-world’s greatest empire lose authority as he does his bowels, brain and locomotion. The well-named Groener makes us feel his pain in each particular (and Bennett is nothing if not graphic in his depiction of a body breaking down).

The king’s sole help comes from Ora Jones’ magnificent Queen Charlotte, George’s fearlessly loyal, unjustly neglected wife, his faithful equerries (Kevin Gudahl and Erik Hellman), and his principled and frustrated prime minister (Nathan Hosner). All do legion work above and beyond every theatrical expectation.

     
King George III (Harry Groener) celebrates his recovery with his devoted Queen Charlotte (Ora Jones) in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's The Madness of George III. Photo by Liz Lauren. King George III (Harry Groener, center) handles government affairs with Prime Minister William Pitt (Nathan Hosner, far left) as Fortnum (Mark D. Hines) awaits orders, in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's The Madness of George III. Photo by Liz Lauren.
King George III (Harry Groener) embraces his straitjacket as he struggles to regain control of his mind in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's The Madness of George III. Photo by Liz Lauren. Queen Charlotte (Ora Jones) warns her ailing husband, King George III (Harry Groener), of his government's impending plan to revoke his political powers, as Captain Fitzroy (Kevin Gudahl, center) and Captain Greville (Erik Hellman, left) look on, in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's The Madness of George III. Photo by Liz Lauren.

As devious as the disease that wracks the king, Richard Baird plays his heir with odious opportunism, matched by Alex Weisman as his corrupt and corpulent younger brother. David Lively’s Lord Chancellor is amusingly caught in the crossfire between both factions, while the four doctors (Brad Armacost, Patrick Clear, William Dick and James Newcomb) display a cornucopia of ignorance that Moliere would envy.

The near-three hours fly by as pell-mell conflicts ebb and seethe under William Bloodgood’s immense Palladian portico. Its most telling moment is when a recovering George experiences the only good treatment he received: He plays a dying King Lear, suddenly realizing that another man wrote about and an imaginary one felt his plight. That, of course, was to know how powerless you are when fate toys with you and your own body turns on you worse than any enemies could imagine. You feel like a voyeur as you watch this scatological and scandalous story unfold, but you can’t take your eyes away for an instant.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

Suspecting a plot to dethrone him, King George III (Harry Groener) attacks his son, the Prince of Wales (Richard Baird), attended by Dr. Richard Warren (Patrick Clear, left), as Queen Charlotte (Ora Jones, right) rushes to quell him and the Duke of York (Alex Weisman) tumbles to escape the fray, in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's The Madness of George III. Photo by Liz Lauren.

All photos by Liz Lauren and Peter Bosy.

     

 

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Belarus Free Theatre wraps up Chicago stay with final show

  
  

Playing to sold out crowds, Belarus Free Theatre wraps up Chicago stay

  
 

Yana Rusakevich, Yana Rusakevich and Aleh Sidorchyk

This past Monday night, the Belarus Free Theatre gave its last Chicago performance of Being Harold Pinter to a packed house at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre. Their world tour will now carry them to Hong Kong and London, a development they hardly anticipated when they first escaped from the Belarus secret police in January to perform in New York City for Under the Radar Festival, sponsored by Public Theatre. As artists on the run, they have one overriding mission—to alert the world to the conditions of torture, unlawful detention and disappearance occurring in “the last dictatorship in Europe” and to continue strong sanctions imposed on Belarus for its mass arrests of Alexander Lukashenko’s political opposition during post-election demonstrations on December 19 last year.

The applause they received upon entering the champagne reception afterwards echoed the standing ovation that crowned up their final performance in Chicago. While undoubtedly deserved, one couldn’t help feeling the inadequacy of what we were offering them–that what they needed most were not cocktails and hors d’oeurvres but a home free from the terrors of state oppression. The star presence of John Mahoney, Ora Jones, Phillip James Brannon, Stephen Louis Grush, and others who joined the actors onstage to read eye-witness accounts of KGB brutality paled before both the cast’s plight and their bold achievement.

Overwhelming our attention were names of the imprisoned and tortured, their images printed up on posterboards and lined in the lobby—Anatoly Lebedko, leader of the United Civil Party; journalists Natalya Radina and Irina Khalip; Andrei Sannikov, Vladimir Nekliaev and Nikolai Statkevich, opposition presidential candidates; Dmitri Bondarenko, European Belarus Movement coordinator; Maya Abramchik and Svetlana Nosova suffering leg and eye injury from being tortured and young Danik, whose parents are still in jail from the December crackdown. “These were the photographs that we made in time for the NYC performance in January,” said BFT director Vladimir Scherban. “Some of the people have been released from jail but are under house arrest now. As for the images of those tortured, these are just those photos that we could get to print.”

With the help of BFT co-founder Natalia Kaladia, I had managed to corner Scherban for an interview:

PL: So, how long will your tour continue from Chicago?

VS: We’ll be in Hong Kong for less than two weeks, then on to London. We’re planning to perform the play in Parliament. We hope so.

PL: So you have UK politicians helping you to set that up?

VS: We have good contacts with British artistic figures. And we hope to return here. We plan to continue our contacts with the Goodman Theatre, with the Public Theatre and the Baryshnikov Theatre in New York.

PL: Have you received enough funding from your performances here for the tour?

VS: (shrugs) We hardly knew we would be here when we arrived in New York. I suppose so—we’d plan on only 4 performances and how spontaneous to perform 14 in Chicago, fully sold out. So, this was very strange but also very pleasant situation that we could do this for Chicago audiences.

PL: How is your application for asylum in the US going?

VS: (shrugs) I really don’t know about asylum. It’s a big question whether that’s going to happen or not. We cannot re-enter our own country. Our members have already received threats or orders to return. We constantly receive threats in the form of our relatives and neighbors being called late at night by the police about our whereabouts. Several members have received invitations from the police to show up for interrogation.

Unfortunately, this [Belarus] government only understands sanctions, straightforward and unwavering sanctions. The last elections, only very harsh sanctions forced the president [Lukashenko] to release the opposition presidential candidates from jails. Discussions do nothing. During discussions, political candidates just become goods to sell America and the EU.

What you have to know about the demonstrations that took place on December 19th is that there was snow on the ground. After the police had stormed the crowd and assaulted the people, the snow was stained with blood. Then at university, students who were absent on the day of the demonstration were ordered to go for a medical check up and if they looked like they had been beaten up from the demonstration, they were expelled from school.

In some ways, it’s easier for us. We don’t fear this anymore. We’ve been beaten up, we’ve been arrested, we’ve lost our places at work—we’ve gotten used to working under pressure.

PL: What would you like people to take away most about your stay here?

VS: Well, a very big idea for everyone to understand is that we mean serious things. We’re not just about going around and telling our story. We are expecting Obama to be very precise about our situation and take a clear position against the Belarus government. This is what people should know: people are being beaten up, thrown in jail, and disappeared. [BFT co-founder] Nikolai [Khalezin] has had 9 friends disappeared in the last 16 years. The people you see on the posters who are in jail? They’re our friends, our audience.

PL: Anything else you’d like to say?

VS: Wish us luck!


UPDATE: Since the posting of this interview, the OSCE  – Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights – published its report on Belarus’s December presidential election, declaring that the election did not meet the criteria for being free and fair.


 

           
Maryna Yurevich, Yana Rusakevich, Nikolai Khalezin_thumb[1] Yana Rusakevich and Aleh Sidorchyk - Belarus Free Theatre - Being Harold Pinter_thumb[1]
Nikolai Khalezin, Maryna Yurevich and Yana Rusakevich_thumb[2] Being Harold Pinter by Belarus Free Theatre at Goodman Theatre_thumb[5]
     
     

REVIEW: Romeo and Juliet (Chicago Shakespeare)

 

CST breathes new life into Shakespeare’s tragic lovers

 

 Tybalt (Zach Appelman, left) duels Mercutio (Ariel Shafir) as the Montagues restrain Romeo from interfering.  Photo by Liz Lauren.

   
Chicago Shakespeare Theater presents
   
Romeo and Juliet
   
Written by William Shakespeare 
Directed by
Gale Edwards
CST’s Courtyard Theatre at
Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Ave. (map)
through November 21  |  tickets: $44-$75  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

You know the story: two lovers from feuding houses fall desperately in love and then they die. Gale Edwards’ production of Romeo and Juliet proves that no matter how many times Shakespeare’s plays are performed, they can still be fresh and relevant if the cast has the technique to make the language thrive in a modern audience’s ear. Shakespeare leaves directorial cues all throughout his scripts – in verse structure, Juliet (Joy Farmer-Clary) discovers Romeo (Jeff Lillico) at her balcony. Photo by Liz Lauren. punctuation, and even spelling – and if the actor obeys these, emotion arises naturally. This Romeo and Juliet ensemble fully understands this, delivering the text with outstanding precision that makes the meaning of each word clear even if the vocabulary is unfamiliar.

The play begins in a graffitied, urban alley split down the middle by construction horses, a foreboding setting that quickly explodes with life as the Capulets and Montagues thrust open the garage doors that line the stage to battle each other. Fight director Rick Sordelet is the real star here, choreographing an epic brawl that has the actors dodging multiple rapier attacks while construction horses fly through the air and are swung like swords. The stakes are set high from the very outset and the violence stays intense and believable throughout the production, never letting the tension die.

Under Gale Edwards’ keen directorial eye, the romance between Romeo (Jeff Lillico) and Juliet (Joy Farmer-Clary) blossoms, beginning with their very first moment at the Capulet ball. Brian Sidney Bembridge’s set utilizes the entire length of the thrust stage, creating a hall of immense depth that allows for great moments of tension through the characters’ spatial relationships, and when the two lovers first meet they are separated by distance but their chemistry is immediate. The coy Juliet makes a run for it, and the childlike innocence on display as they chase each other around the hall quickly transforms into lusty romance as first their fingers, then lips, intertwine. The leads expertly capture the dynamic of two hormonally charged teenagers, particularly Farmer-Clary, whose Juliet struggles to hold on to her virtue as she falls deeper for Romeo.

Romeo (Jeff Lillico, right) persuades Friar Laurence (David Lively) to wed him to Juliet. Photo by Liz Lauren. Nurse (Ora Jones, left) tells Juliet (Joy Farmer-Clary) that Romeo has arranged to marry her that very day.
Mercutio (Ariel Shafir, left) is restrained by Romeo (Jeff Lillico) before the Capulet ball.  Photo by Liz Lauren. Romeo (Jeff Lillico) promises his bride Juliet (Joy Farmer-Clary) that his banishment will not keep them apart. Photo by Liz Lauren.

The production doesn’t shy away from the erotic, instead relishing in Shakespeare’s bawdy puns, particularly the overtly sexual Mercutio (Ariel Shafir). Shafir fearlessly tackles the plethora of double entendres he is handed, often going to grotesque extremes that are hilarious but inappropriate for print. These lead to some especially humorous moments when he encounters the Nurse (Ora Jones), who is completely unprepared for the barrage of insults he hurls her way, with most of them of a decidedly erotic nature. Jones’ brilliant portrayal of the Nurse is one of the play’s highlights, showing the motherly affection that Lady Capulet (Judy Blue) lacks while still being a safe, friendly presence in Juliet’s life. Whether teasing, comforting, or advising, it is easy to see why the Nurse is Juliet’s closest confidant, and Jones’ exaggerated mannerisms (and one completely over-the-top dress) make her a comedic goldmine throughout the production.

The posters for Romeo and Juliet ask, “How long will it take for you to fall in love with Shakespeare?” Judging from the quality of Gale Edwards’ fast-paced, emotionally-rich production, it should take no time at all.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

In the House of Capulet, Lord Capulet (John Judd, center) and Lady Capulet (Judy Blue, second from left) prepare to receive guests. Photo by Liz Lauren.

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Chicago Shakespeare announces 2010-2011 Season

Chicago Shakespeare - Taming of Shrew Taming of the Shrew, performed in the Courtyard Theater through June 2010

 

Chicago Shakespeare Theater announces their

 
2010-2011 Season

 

As Chicago Shakespeare Theater (CST) finishes the run of its acclaimed world-premiere family musical The Emperor’s New Clothes (our review ★★★½) this month, it looks forward to the season ahead. Further information for all of the productions listed below is available on the Theater’s website at www.chicagoshakes.com or by calling the CST Box Office at 312.595.5600.

 

Mainstage Shows

 

September 15–November 21

   
   
  Romeo and Juliet
  By William Shakespeare 
Directed by
Gale Edwards
In the
Courtyard Theater
   
  Opening the 2010/11 Subscription Series, world-renowned Australian director Gale Edwards stages William Shakespeare’s iconic romantic tragedy in her CST debut. Edwards, whose work has been seen at the Royal Shakespeare Company and in theaters across America, has assembled a talented ensemble including Canada’s Dora Award winner Jeff Lillico and Joy Farmer-Clary in the title roles. CST veterans returning for Edwards’ production include: Ora Jones, last seen in Twelfth Night (our review ★★★½), as Nurse; Brendan Marshall-Rashid, who delivered Richmond’s memorable final soliloquy in Richard III (our review ★★★★), as Paris; Judy Blue as Lady Capulet; Steve Haggard as Benvolio; and David Lively as Friar Laurence, who previously played King Henry IV in CST’s Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, marking the Theater’s debut at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2006. An award-winning creative team joins Edwards for this landmark production, including Scenic Designer Brian Sidney Bembridge, Costume Designer Ana Kuzmanic, Lighting Designer John Culbert, Original Music and Sound Designer Lindsay Jones, Wig and Makeup Designer Melissa Veal, Properties Master Chelsea Meyers, Fight Director Rick Sordelet and Verse Coach Barbara Robertson.
   
Jeff Lillico and Joy Farmer-Clary will play the title roles in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's Romeo and Juliet from September 15–November 21, 2010.  Photo by Peter Bosy.Jeff Lillico and Joy Farmer-Clary will play the title roles in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Romeo and Juliet from September 15–November 21, 2010.  Photo by Peter Bosy.

 

 

January 5 – March 6, 2011

   
   
  As You Like It
  By William Shakespeare 
Directed by
Gary Griffin 
In the
Courtyard Theater
   
  CST Associate Artistic Director Gary Griffin directs Shakespeare’s beloved pastoral comedy set in the magical Forest of Arden. This season marks Griffin’s ten-year anniversary with CST, an illustrious history that includes his acclaimed CST Olivier and Jeff Award-winning Sondheim musicals and productions of Private Lives (review ★★★) and Amadeus.
   
   

 

April 13 – June 12, 2011

   
   
  The Madness of George III
  By Alan Bennett
Directed by Penny Metropolus
In the Courtyard Theater
   
  The three-play Subscription Series concludes with The Madness of George III by Olivier and Tony Award-winning playwright Alan Bennett (The History Boys). This masterpiece of royal intrigue about a monarch’s slide into insanity will be directed by Penny Metropolus, whose work has been seen for nearly two decades at Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The production marks Metropolus’ return to CST, where she staged The Two Gentlemen of Verona in 2000.
   
   

World’s Stage  and   CST Family

Below the Fold:  World’s Stage productions from Scotland and Ireland, and a CST export to Australia. Additional CST Family programming includes an abridged Shakespeare production and family concerts.

 

Chicago Shakes - Black Watch 2 Chicago Shakes - Cripple of Inishmaan 1
Chicago Shakes - Funk it Up 1 Chicago Shakes - Black Watch 4

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REVIEW: The Brother/Sister Plays (Steppenwolf Theatre)

Ground-breaking production reveals playwright’s brilliance

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Steppenwolf Theatre presents:

The Brother/Sister Plays

 

by Tarell Alvin McCraney
directed by Tina Landau
through May 23rd (more info)

review by Barry Eitel

Tarell Alvin McCraney has received quite a bit of exposure in the theatre blogosphere in recent months. The debut of his Brother/Sister Plays at Steppenwolf Theatre, directed by the distinguished Tina Landau and featuring a powerhouse ensemble of actors, has made him subject to all sorts of interviews, features, and user comments.

BroSis-01 Fortunately, his work does stand up to the hype. At 29 years old, McCraney is on his way to being one of the premier playwrights of this upcoming decade.

There are plenty of comparisons to be made between McCraney’s work and the cream of the crop of African-American playwrights. Like Lorraine Hansberry, he has a flair for fiery dramatics. Like August Wilson, he layers in plenty of history and culture. Like Suzi Lori-Parks, he can whip out beautiful poetry – even in the darkest of situations. But like the works of all of these playwrights, The Brother/Sister Plays are born out of a multitude of influences. Hints of Brecht, Lorca and Yoruba; writers such as Wole Soyinka mark up McCraney’s loose trilogy of plays. McCraney’s plays are far more than a hodge-podge of influences, though. The Brother/Sister Plays show off a unique style, one that is detonated by Landau’s fertile imagination and the cast’s passionate dedication.

The Brother/Sister Plays at Steppenwolf consist of three plays, In the Red and Brown Water, a full-length work, alongside The Brothers Size and Marcus, or the Secret of Sweet. They are playing the three plays in repertory, with Red and Brown Water going up one night and a double-bill of Brothers Size and Marcus the next. Or you can choose to see all three on a marathon Saturday afternoon/evening. Although not a straight-up trilogy, the three plays are written in a similar style along with sharing characters and community (much like Wilson’s 10-play cycle). Each play works well as an individual piece, however. Red and Brown Water follows a young girl through the years as she struggles against her social class and the men in her life. Although all the plays have elements of song and poetry, this one is chock-full of pulsing, celebratory music and lyrical language. Marcus, the next longest play, takes place years later and details the journey of a teenager discovering his sexuality. It is the most plot-heavy of the three, and probably the most accessible. My personal favorite was The Brothers Size, a succinct, biting, actor’s dream of a play. Painted by social issues ranging from unemployment, homosexuality, and racial profiling, the piece pits two brothers against each other. The tight drama reminded me of David Mamet’s testosterone-crammed American Buffalo, currently sharing a building with these plays. (see our review★★★★)

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BroSis-09 BroSis-23 BroSis-05

The writing provides a solid base, but the Steppenwolf production soars because of how well Landau’s viewpoints-focused direction compliments McCraney’s avant garde sensibilities. The three plays are set on a more-or-less bare stage, yet space and time are consistently transcended. (Ah, the possibilities of theatre.) It also helps that the ensemble comprises of some of the best actors in the city. The Brothers Size, for example, works so well because of the searing performances pumped out by Philip James Brannon and the great K. Todd Freeman. Other highlights include the brassy Jacqueline Williams and the introspective Glenn Davis.

With any show that experiments as bravely as The Brother/Sister Plays, there is bound to be a few stumbling blocks. The plays are littered with narrative takes to the audience (Ogun will say, “Ogun smiles,” and then he will smile), which create some fantastic moments but also sometimes feel a little overused. Marcus could also use about 15 minutes cut off, and the overall storyline can become convoluted. The theatrical dividends are well worth the occasional hiccup, though. The Brother/Sister Plays make it clear that McCraney will no doubt become an important dramatic voice for our generation.

 

Rating: ★★★★

 

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YouTube: The Brother/Sister Plays (Steppenwolf)

The Brother/Sister Plays, opening this weekend at Steppenwolf Theatre, are a breakthrough theatrical event: three interconnected plays by a brilliant new American brother-sistervoice, Tarell McCraney. Grand in scope, yet intimate and heartfelt, the plays are daring, funny and genuine. 

Steppenwolf presents The Brother/Sister Plays, written by Tarell Alvin McCraney, directed by ensemble member Tina Landau, featuring ensemble members Alana Arenas, K. Todd Freeman and Ora Jones, with Phillip James Brannon, Rodrick Covington, Glenn Davis, Jeff Parker, Tamberla Perry and Jacqueline Williams.

 

 

Tarell McCraney on his Trilogy: The Brother/Sister Plays

 

Tarell McCraney on ensemble work

 

Getting to know Tarell McCraney, playwright of "The Brother/Sister Plays

 

Working with director Tina Landau

Review: Goodman Theatre’s “Animal Crackers”

 Ludicrous yet loveable, “Animal Crackers” is rollicking good time

(clockwise from top) Ora Jones (Mrs. Rittenhouse), Ed Kross (Horatio Jamison/Zeppo), Joey Slotnick (Captain Jeffrey T. Spaulding/Groucho), Molly Brennan (The Professor/Harpo) and Jonathan Brody (Emanuel Ravelli/Chico).  Photo by Eric Y. Exit

Goodman Theatre presents

Animal Crackers

Book by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind
Music and Lyrics by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby
directed by Henry Wishcamper
Now extended thru November 1st (buy tickets)

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

 (l to r) Mara Davi (Mrs. Whitehead) and Joey Slotnick (Captain Jeffrey T. Spaulding/Groucho).  Photo by Eric Y. Exit It’s pretty rare that a stage production can be described as both “brilliant” and “stupid.” Theatre quite often views itself as an intellectual pursuit (or at least it would like to), leaving the silly, ridiculous, and trivial to blockbuster movies. The Goodman’s mounting of the Marx Brother’s classic musical Animal Crackers, though, seems to be going for that idiocy much of today’s theatre is afraid to touch. It succeeds beautifully. With an intensely committed cast and under the energized direction of Henry Wishcamper, Animal Crackers is remarkably, refreshingly stupid.

A few coincidences also help make Animal Crackers oddly connected to our current world. First, the musical is premiering against Fake Steppenwolf Theatre’s current show exploring the history of the “Piltdown Man,” a hoax that claimed to be the missing link between man and ape. And both of these shows now have an interesting new relevance with last week’s announcement concerning the discovery of the oldest known human ancestor, “Ardi.” Now Animal Crackers doesn’t trouble  itself with Darwin, biology, or the scientific method; instead, it lambastes the scientific community and high society with a keen sense of farce that could only come Production_06from the Marx Brothers. There is a silent The Professor (Molly Brennan in the role created by Harpo), whose subject of study is never revealed, besides his penchant for chasing every woman in the room. Then there is the wise-cracking African explorer Captain Spaulding (Joey Slotnick with Groucho’s signature mustache and cigar), who claims that his retirement would be his greatest contribution to science. Along with the scheming musician Emanuel Ravelli (Jonathan Brody in Chico’s role), the group wrecks havoc among a group of painters, newspaper columnists, debutants, art collectors, and a few lovers. The musical wasn’t produced for over 50 years after the Marx Brothers’ Broadway original and is still a very rare sight for theatre audiences. Wishcamper’s revival proves that Animal Crackers still has spirit, even though the last Marx Brother died 30 years ago.

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The big question I had was if Brennan, Slotnick, and Brody would just be doing a simple imitation or inventing the characters anew. The end result is a hefty portion of both. Harpo, Groucho, and Chico are reproduced on stage, but the performers find plenty of new material within the script. At one point, Spaulding performs a Production_11sarcastic homage to last season’s O’Neill festival. At another point, The Professor whips out a rifle from his coat and shoots wildly at the orchestra and the ceiling, causing several plush ducks to fall onto the stage. Brennan, Slotnick, and Brody never miss a comic beat, and they will not hesitate to chastise the audience if there’s not enough laughter (“The Addam’s Family isn’t in town till November”). The work of clowning director Paul Kalina is very clear. There are hilarious comic bits with hats, playing cards, tables, stuff shoved into The Professor’s jacket, paintings, ladders, the list goes on and on.

  Production_03Wishcamper cast all of the parts with only nine actors, which swells the madness of the script to another level. The lovers, devious debutants, and other members of high society that are constantly insulted and/or hit on by Brennan, Slotnick, and Brody are all tightly performed. However, the play’s plot, which serves as more of a frame for the Marxs’ antics than a real storyline, becomes a bit tiring by the second act. Shaving the run time down would definitely help the show pop a bit more.

Wishcamper and his cast confirm that Animal Crackers can be much more than just a device for the original performers. With their spirited vitality, they thoroughly push the musical’s farce, ridiculousness, and, yes, even its stupidity.

Rating: «««

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