Regional Theater Review: THE COCOANUTS (Oregon Shakespeare Festival)

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by Joel Beers on August 28, 2014

in Theater-Regional

CUCKOO FOR COCOANUTS

In its 79-year history, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has cycled through Shakespeare’s canon three times. That’s impressive. But here’s a vote from this corner that the next oeuvre to be staged in Ashland is that of the Marx Brothers.

Two years ago, OSF mounted an adaptation of the Brothers’ 1930 classic film Animal Crackers to great acclaim. This year, it’s staging the 1925 play that became the clan’s first film, The Cocoanuts (1929). This George S. Kaufman and Irving Berlin coupling, like Animal Crackers, is a musical comedy that was written for the brothers three.

With nothing in his suitcase and not a single line, Harpo (Brent Hinkley) is unforgettable. Mr. Hammer (Mark Bedard), Chico (John Tufts) and Robert Jamison (Eduardo Placer) look on.

Though nearly 90 years old, the fact it began as a stage play would seem to make it a slam dunk for a contemporary revival. Well, maybe. But you’re also dealing with one of the most iconic comedic forces in cinematic history; three larger-than-life characters engrained into the collective synapses of American popular culture. And that is where adaptor Mark Bedard’s vision, helped considerably by David Ivers’ free-wheeling, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink direction, elevates this from mere homage or gussied-up revival to electrically entertaining theater.

Resistance is futile. But you can try. Harpo (Brent Hinkley), Chico (John Tufts) and Groucho (Mark Bedard). Photo by Jenny Graham.

Yes, it’s dated: Many of the jokes fall to the ground with all the grace of a lead balloon and, like most of the cinematic musical comedies of the 1930s, few of the musical numbers propel the plot, and most feel like filler between the gags. But the riotous, improvisational efforts of Bedard (Groucho), Brent Hickley (Harpo) and John Tufts (Chico) turn a quintessentially Marx Brothers vehicle of lunatic anarchy that slams into elite social circles into a fresh, vibrant, and thoroughly hilarious experience.

Penelope Martin (Kate Mulligan), Harpo (Brent Hinkley) and Harvey Yates (Robert Vincent Frank) get to know each other at the Cocoanuts Hotel.

A big reason for its success is that the three actors don’t approach their roles as caricatures or impersonations; they explore them as characters. Yes, they have the distinctive mannerisms, garb, and dialects of Groucho, Harpo, and Chico, but each performer uses the familiar as a springboard into uncharted territory (the buzz around Ashland is that every night is different, based on the ample crowd interaction and whatever bits the actors might devise in the moment). It’s easy to think in watching the production that you’re catching a glimpse of how rehearsals for the play or the film in the 1920s would have looked.

Harpo (Brent Hinkley) and Groucho (Mark Bedard) cause havoc in the hotel rooms.

The supporting cast is game; although this show’s Zeppo, Richard Placer, is as unfortunately lost in the madness as he was in the actual Marx Brothers’ films. Playing his love interest Polly Parker, Jennie Greenberry is noteworthy mostly for her ample vocal chops, but none of the rest of the cast, excluding David Kelly as a hapless detective, comes close to keeping the beat of the march of madness supplied by Bedard, Hickley, and Tufts.

Detective Hennessey (David Kelly, center) has much to sing about at the wedding rehearsal dinner.

Those familiar with the Marx Brothers will find little fault with this show. Those unfamiliar might be launched into a lifelong love affair with a comedic juggernaut that was afflicting the comfortable with full-frontal derision years before belittling the one percent became a cottage industry and satiric comedy became synonymous with irony.

photos by Jenny Graham

The Cocoanuts
Angus Bowmer Theatre
Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, OR
scheduled to end on November 1, 2014
for tickets, call 800.219.8161 or visit www.osfashland.org

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