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Living up to the Marx Brothers

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Anarchists have taken over Center Stage.

Not the bomb-throwing kind, but the quip-smacking, horn-honking, non-sequitur-spinning types known as the Marx Brothers.

Those indelible siblings — weirdly mustachioed Groucho, fake-Italian Chico, silent Harpo, straight man Zeppo — are being resurrected in an adaptation of "Animal Crackers" that opens the Center Stage season this week.

The original "Animal Crackers" was a 1928 Broadway musical that provided a typically nutty stage vehicle for the Marx Brothers and, two years later, an equally nutty film.

The plot, if it can be called one, revolves around wealthy Mrs. Rittenhouse (immortalized on stage and screen by uber-dowager Margaret Dumont) and a missing painting.

But the main focus is on three eccentric figures. The explorer Captain Spaulding is the Groucho role; the piano-paying Emanuel Ravelli is Chico's assignment; and the Professor is the quintessential Harpo character, a guy in an overcoat who chases women but brakes for harps. (As usual, the role for Zeppo is less colorful.)

The Center Stage production will re-create a lot of shtick that will be familiar to fans of the movie, including the moment when a helpless butler (wonderfully named Hives) tries to open a folding table while Harpo does his best to thwart the process.

Helping to make such shtick stick is Paul Kalina, the show's director of physical comedy. He has been working alongside stage director BJ Jones, who describes Kalina as having "nearly a Ph.D. in Marx Brothers." An appreciation for the comic team may have been hereditary.

"My old man would skip school and take the train into Chicago to see their live shows when they were on tour," Kalina, 44, said. "And I kind of grew up with them. [Chicago TV station] WGN played a lot of their movies. I took to them and that whole era of comedy."

Kalina eventually discovered his calling at the Dell'Arte International School of Physical Theatre in California, where he honed his skills in the clown genre. "More in the line of Buster Keaton than Charlie Chaplin," he said.

That led to Kalina becoming a founding member of a Chicago physical comedy troupe called 500 Clown ("You say '500 head of cattle,' so we say '500 Clown' "), inspired by the sense of anarchy that the Marx Brothers generated.

When Chicago's Goodman Theatre staged "Animal Crackers" in 2009, adapted and directed by that company's resident artistic associate, Henry Wishcamper, Kalina was brought in to ensure the right flavor of physical comedy. He performed the same service for a production of the Wishcamper version at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts this summer.

In Baltimore, Kalina has been reunited with two of the Williamstown actors, Brad Aldous as the Professor and Jonathan Brody as Ravelli, both making their Center Stage debuts.

In a recent rehearsal, Kalina worked with them on minute details in scenes involving such things as dropping tools in just the right way to make the correct amount of racket, and how to get perfectly tangled in a ladder.

"The physical part of this is so key," said Jones, the stage director. "You have to drill it and drill it and drill it."

In the case of the Groucho role, there's not just the physical side to evoke — Groucho was wonderfully rubbery in the early years of the Marx Brothers — but the verbal one. His accent and way of phrasing are very much a part of the picture.

Stepping into Groucho's aura and mustache for the Center Stage production is Bruce Randolph Nelson, a resident artist of Everyman Theatre making a return guest engagement. He did not come to the project as a lifelong Marx Brothers fan.

"I watched the 'Animal Crackers' movie and read books about Groucho to get a sense of what he was about," said Nelson, 46. "I watched video clips voraciously, starting with Groucho's TV quiz show 'You Bet Your Life.' I marveled at his rapport and sense of improvisation on that show."

Unlike a typical play, this one is not so much about getting into character as it is getting into the character of the person who famously first portrayed that character.

"I wanted to get as close as I could get to imitating Groucho and then infuse my own sensibilities into the process," Nelson said. "What made the process so lovely in this production was that everyone realized I've got to be in there somewhere."

A perfect impersonation is not the goal of the production, anyway, especially since so many people still have clear memories of the Marx Brothers.

"You can't live up to that," Jones, 62, said, "but you can live up to the spirit."

That spirit is totally, disarmingly zany. To spread that quality around, the "Animal Crackers" adaptation does not put all of the comic-engine weight on the actors in portraying Groucho, Chico and Harpo.

Most of the others in the cast get a chance to reveal their chops by taking on multiple roles. It's a familiar device in the theater, used most memorably in recent years in the Broadway hit "The 39 Steps." This "Animal Crackers" has 21 characters and something like 60 costume changes, but only nine actors in all. "It requires a virtuosic ensemble," Kalina said.

Marx Brothers stage shows were notorious for improvisation and irreverence, qualities that tended to get somewhat defused in the movies.

"I read firsthand accounts of what was happening in theaters when they performed," Kalina said. "People thought they were crazy. They did wild things. They would strip their producer and wheel him onstage in a basket and make him run off. That's why audiences loved them. There was an extreme sense of play. Nothing was sacred."

Some Marx Brothers business has not aged well. Captain Spaudling's first appearance in "Animal Crackers," for example, involved being carried in on a covered chair borne by African natives.

"That would be politically and socially incorrect today," Kalina said. "But we had to have a spectacular entrance for him. I created one."

It would also be unwise to preserve all of the original "Animal Crackers," which was a long play even before the brothers inserted things (performances were known to run for four hours or so).

The adaptation that Center Stage is using trims a fair amount of material — "The plot is simplified; it gets right to the Marx Brothers' madness," Jones said — but keeps most of the original music. (The movie jettisoned several songs.)

It also strives to retain the authentic anarchic edge. This is no ordinary play with a clear-cut beginning, middle and end.

"What the Marx Brothers did in 1928 was a kind of performance art, when you think about it," Jones said. "People never knew what they were going to do. 'Animal Crackers' is more like two plays that collide and one takes over the other. It was an assault on theatrical structure."

Jones got turned on to the Marx Brothers as a college student after attending an all-night festival of their films in 1969, a time when anti-authority antics seemed newly relevant.

"The Marx Brothers were anarchists, and we all felt they would have joined us, in a comedic way, in smashing down walls," Jones said. "If we're trying to re-create anything in 'Animal Crackers,' it's the sense of being at the first Broadway performance and seeing the Marx Brothers suddenly break out. Once you're on this ride, it's fast and clear and brisk. And you stay on it for the giddy exuberance of it."

tim.smith@baltsun.com

If you go

"Animal Crackers" opens Wednesday and runs through Oct. 13 at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St. Tickets are $19 to $59. Call 410-332-0033, or go to centerstage.org

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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