Marx Brothers and Medea: Day Two at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

by on May 18, 2012

After my second day at Oregon Shakespeare Festival (check out day one), I have decided that Ashland is some sort of fairy tale land with that idyllic look of postcards or like that sunny dirt road deep in Bear Country. Every day has been 75 degrees and sunny.

There is a babbling brook (I shit you not) with patio restaurants lining either side, and no one seems to swear, or smoke, or drink in excess (so, I’m fitting in great). Strangely, everyone looks happy. Like Stepford happy. Like how many drugs are you taking in secret happy.

Like Seattle, Ashland earns its idyllic summer by suffering through the long winter and rehearsals that wouldn’t end, all to get to this point where they can perform for audiences in the afternoon and evening, Tuesday through Sunday, from February through November. Lucky them, right?

Captain Spaulding (Mark Bedard), Ravelli (John Tufts), Jamison (Eddie Lopez) and The Professor (Brent Hinkley) serenade themselves and Mrs. Rittenhouse (K.T. Vogt). Photo: Jenny Graham.

It is walking amongst the cheery-dispositioned pod people (I say as one of the infected) that led me to Animal Crackers (through Nov 4; tickets) at the Angus Bowmer Theatre for my second matinee. Animal Crackers is exactly what it sounds like: a stage version of the 1930 Marx Brothers film with more theatrical elements and interludes of vaudevillian ridiculousness.

Directed by Seattle director (represent) Allison Narver, Animal Crackers delivers the one-two like no other. Limited as it is in the context of characters whose performance history is already well-known, Animal Crackers allows for surprises. No, Harpo (the incredibly skilled Brent Hinkley) will not speak, Groucho (spot-on performance from Mark Bedard) won’t pause through a punchline, or speak without his cigar, but beach balls are tossed into the audience. You begin to question which moments are improvised or planned, which for a comedy troupe is what you’d hope.

An absolutely stellar comedic cast executed the performance with hilarity. Of particular note was the performance of Daisuke Tsuji as Emanuel Ravelli. His conman act as a musician you pay not to play was utterly hysterical, and prompted the middle school tweens behind me to scream, “I love you!” every time he came on stage. Not missing a beat, he would respond with “I love you, too,” or, “You barely know me.” (In the production photos, Tsuji is not pictured, but John Tufts who shares the role.)

Making his grand entrance, The Professor then loses a bit of cutlery. Ensemble. Photo: Jenny Graham.

If Ravelli (sometimes calling himself “Ravioli”) doesn’t get to you, Brent Hinkley’s Professor will. The kleptomaniac, silent character and partner to Ravelli has a five minute long introduction in which he stands facing the audience center as buckets and buckets of stolen silver cutlery fall from his sleeves in front of his host.

Not to be outshone, K.T. Vogt’s straightwoman timing as Mrs. Rittenhouse, who may be a little smitten with Captain Jeffrey T. Spaulding (the T. stands for Edgar), will crack up even the dourest of dispositions. The tween who sat next to me away from her friends can attest to this. Looking like she wanted to murder someone with her arms crossed and fight face on, she actually started giggling as soon as Spaulding and Rittenhouse began riffing off each other.

Yes, the funny bits are funny, and the antics are antic-y. What makes Animal Crackers drag a bit are the romantic story lines that detract from the humor and banter. Musical numbers about how much the various lovers dote on each other become tedious especially since the characters might as well be the same people (and sometimes are performed by the same actor), and the songs generally have the same over-the-top vibe with less comedy.

Ravelli (John Tufts) and The Professor (Brent Hinkley) do some sparring. Photo: Jenny Graham.

Before a bunch of Marx Brothers enthusiasts jump on me, I know that the original movie had these songs and these additional story lines. I’m saying that I thought the story would have been better served without them because for the most part they weren’t living up to their comedic potential.

And yes, I also know that generally what makes something a comedy in classic terms is lovers getting together. I know. Shut up already. I just didn’t care for those stories and songs as much, no matter how well-performed. That being said, the musical numbers were delightful. I especially enjoyed “Hooray for Captain Spaulding,” or really any song in which the entire ensemble was together.

Pulled together by a stellar lighting design (Geoff Korf) and live sound (designed by Matt Callahan) the timing of the piece struck the right chord of ridiculousness that I think the Marx Brothers would approve.

And for the first time, I’ve been convinced of the importance of comedy. Narver writes in her performance notes, “As much as theatre must challenge, provoke and deepen our understanding of the world, it has an equally pressing responsibility–to engage us in the exuberance of being alive, reminding us that a little frivolity can be serious business.”

Allison Narver, you so smart. No seriously, I mean that. You have made me enjoy two comedies in a row, ‘cause I wanted to make sweet love to your production of Or, and now Animal Crackers.

However, I must once again call out poor patron etiquette. All of the performances I’ve attended have had audiences on school field trips. And for the most part, these students have been respectful, or at the very least gone unnoticed. But during this production there were ten-year-olds who would not shut up sitting in front of me with their teacher. This poor woman attempted to wrangle these students several times to no avail.

I know corporal punishment has fallen by the wayside, but if your students are acting up in a theatre and continue to distract the audience around them, either beat them or remove them from the theatre. The world will thank you for it.

Afternoon/evening drink break!

Doesn't this blurry artichoke chicken wrap with garlic fries look tasty? ($9)

I found myself with a $100 gift card to Standing Stone Brewery, so this is where I abandon eating cheaply (I mean, it still is for me) and I’m tempted to buy a steak dinner. But here’s the thing about sunny days–they make me want to eat vegetables. Like a lot of vegetables. But the anti-health nut inside of me wanted those vegetables to also come with a side of garlic fries and a stout beer. So, Standing Stone was the perfect place to land.

I ordered an Artichoke Chicken Wrap ($9) and their Noble Stout ($4). The Noble Stout was a glorious oatmeal and coffee stout made with a local roasters coffee beans. If you like coffee and you like beer, always buy the coffee stout.

As luck would have it, it’s American Beer Week, so they were tapping a new beer called Backyard Brew. This beer was a honey and blackberry Belgian made from local ingredients. The tapping of this keg was proceeded by a speech from the Mayor about how awesome Standing Stone Brewery is for keeping Ashland full of hops and barely. And they gave me a free half-pint sample of it. Standing Stone for the win. Also, little bit of advice: if a bartender asks you, “Do you want a beer back?” when you order a shot of whiskey, say yes. Always say yes.

Godmother (K.T. Vogt) and the Witches (U. Jonathan Toppo, Eddie Lopez, Daniel T. Parker). Photo: Jenny Graham.

Full of good food and booze I walked over to the Angus Bowmer to see Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella (through Nov 3; tickets), henceforth, it shall be called MMC because it’s obnoxious to type.

For all shows at OSF, there is a substantial amount of dramaturgical information to prepare, or enrich your experience. Most shows only get a few pages worth of information, but the two shows with the most (including supplementary materials in OSF’s magazine Prologue) are White Snake and MMC.

The reason for this seems to be because MMC is the darling of Bill Rauch (Artistic Director of the Fest and one of the directors of this piece, the other director is Tracy Young) and many company members who have known Rauch since college. MMC started as a college project and has since morphed into four different productions as Rauch tries to find the best way to tell all three stories simultaneously. And to oversimplify, that’s what MMC is trying to do–tell the three somewhat similar stories on stage at the same time.

However, looking at it another way, MMC is more of a love letter to the art of theatre. Rauch was inspired by the “three great populist movements in Western drama–Greek tragedy, Elizabethan drama and the American musical comedy” and as such, the play unfolds trying to tell these stories in their chosen form with full on masks, kilts, and brightly colored costumes, respectively. As the play moves forward, everything becomes simplified by removing the make-up, wigs, and costumes.

The play opens with a ghost light and the Stagehand (executed by Mark Bedard), dressed as an OSF usher, hearing the whispers from our three titular characters, and seeing their shadows. From there the three stories continue with some major edits, but still hitting the high points.

The Stagehand moves between every play, and in some ways seems to invoke the stories, or will them into existence while also playing his part as minor characters who further the action through questions or exposition.

In a similarly theatrical vein, the set (designed by Rachel Hauck) is black, with three separate levels (the highest being the thrones) and a staircase leading to a hulking door–essentially, they’ve created a blank space on which the actors build everything and the rest is up to the audience to create.

Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella: Ensemble. Photo: Jenny Graham.

Keeping with theatrical tradition, Rauch and Young decided to cast the three productions in historical context…ish. For instance, Medea is performed in mask (with the exception of the titular character) but is all female, which is a welcome choice because I think I’d magic my fist through a wall if Medea were played by a dude (no offense to the penis brethren, just stay away from my Medea). Macbeth contrarily is an all-male cast with full Scotsman ensemble. And Cinderella is adorned with cotton candy colors.

Convoluted at times, the production was interesting if for no other reason than as a dramaturgical exercise in seeing where the texts overlap, and in asking questions like, “How the hell does Cinderella inform Medea or Macbeth?” And therein lies my problem.

I’m not a fan of musical comedy and I think I would be a lot happier if I could go through life knowing I’ll never hear the song “Oklahoma” again. I understand musical comedy’s place in theatre history and that’s just dandy, but ultimately, I find there to be little-to-no character development in these plays, or you know, stakes. They aren’t meant to challenge or provoke. They are meant for you to giggle at and whistle along, and promptly forget as soon as you leave, which is about as far from my aesthetic as you can possibly get.

So how can you have Cinderella, the meek scullery maid, share the same space with Medea, the goddess of goddesses of female empowerment and tragedy? How can they stand side-by-side and make me give a shit about Cinderella’s petty problems of really wanting a prince to marry her when Medea is contemplating killing her children? And yet, this is not to say that that question alone didn’t sustain me through the entire production– it did, in a good and bad way.

What I enjoyed about the production was trying to figure out what these pieces were saying to one another. So, as an academic exercise, the play worked. I paid particular attention to when a character from say, Macbeth used something said in Cinderella as subtext to move in the space and those choices were illuminating (and meticulously crafted). I laughed when the Fairy Godmother became Hecate in Macbeth, for example, and that the three women in Cinderella were often paired against the weird sisters.

Macbeth (Jeffrey King), Cinderella (Laura Griffith) and Medea (Miriam A. Laube). Photo: Jenny Graham.

But as a theatrical experience beyond these bits of storytelling, I’m not sure what it accomplished. If anything it made me wish Rauch and Young would direct this all female version of Medea as long as Miriam A. Laube gets to play her, ’cause, damn. But in terms of emotion it evoked, or other questions beyond hunting for these Easter eggs, I’m not sure what’s there.

So, is it enough just ask the questions and hope that emotion can be left behind? I want to think so. I also think I would love reading it to see how they pieced it together. I’d even be tempted to see it again if only to try to figure more out and to continue asking questions about how the three texts can/should/should not inform each other.

This was not a simple night of theatre. You were not meant to sit back and watch idly. This play was meant for your constant engagement and focus because there were so many elements at work. And this alone, makes me think more similar endeavors would be a worthwhile contribution to the Festival. It’s not a play you enjoy, but I would say it is an experience.

After MMC I stopped by Standing Stone Brewing Company yet again, this time to purchase a growler of their regular oatmeal stout ($22). Growlers are known in my house as “Writer’s Helper.” Day Three will feature White SnakeSeagull, and perhaps sushi.

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