The Denver Center for the Performing Arts opened Animal Crackers, the classic of stage and screen from The Marx Bros. And whether you know the show or not, the summary is that it doesn’t matter.
You’re just not going to see a bad show at the Denver Center. The venue, budget and talent prevent a production from being less than top-notch. And that’s the case in Animal Crackers.
The multi-level set, with its old rich opulence and motorized elements, and the truly slammin’ jazz orchestra deliver a magnificent performance. Actor Jim Ferris’ Groucho is so good that he was able to do nearly five minutes of faux improv in the audience after an actor faux-dropped a line. Jonathan Brody’s Chico nailed his character’s bizarre piano stylings, and though he didn’t touch an instrument, Jonathan Randell Silver even managed to capture the twinkle in Harpo’s eye. The show was funny from start to finish and entertained even younger members of the audience who couldn’t possibly have yet grasped the scope of their influence.
But that said, there is a slightly unsettling meta layer to the show.
The average play is never the same in multiple productions. Set designers build different spaces, actors make different choices and directors seek to evoke the unique tone they read from the script. Oftentimes the goal is to make the play a wholly new reading of the material that shows it in a previously unseen light. But with Animal Crackers, the interpretation is set in stone because the play was not just performed by The Marx Bros., but written specifically for their characters. Marlon Brando may have so thoroughly owned the role of Stanley Kowalski in the film version of A Streetcar Named Desire that he became the barometer all stage actors measure their performances against, but there is no measuring oneself against a Marx brother, there is only imitating them. Add on top that the “story” of Animal Crackers isn’t a story so much as a series of gags shoehorned around showcasing the characters, meaning without precise imitations, the story makes even less sense.
The basics are that an old money socialite in upstate New York is having a party to show off her friendship — and hopeful romance — with a famous African explorer, Captain Spaulding, played by Groucho (Ferris), a character who seems more fit to explore the depths of an easy chair than the African outback. For questionable reasons, the other brothers show up as party guests, despite not knowing the host, and are invited to stay. Hilarity ensues.
“If this doesn’t make sense, you only have yourself to blame for not walking out,” Groucho quips in progressive nonsense of the third act.
What made the Marx bros. great was their total originality. As such, the production, in all its majesty and comedic wizardry, comes off a bit like a tribute band with pro performers, possibly even more skilled than the original, but lacking the soul.
How much that will matter to you as you’re busting a gut laughing may depend entirely on whether or not you make your living as a curmudgeonly arts critic — as Groucho sang in Horse Feathers, “whatever it is, I’m against it.”
But if the point of art is to inspire conversation, a good topic could be whether big-budget live theater’s trend away from original material and towards stage adaptations of movies for decades is harming the medium, if by only putting the faux Marx bros on stage to meet the bottom line, our culture might be missing out on the opportunity to discover their modern day equivalent.
Wondering what I’m talking about? See the play for yourself. And when you do, be prepared to laugh yourself silly.