The Cocoanuts – Anything Can Happen…and Does… at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

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Starting a review by referring to the opening night production as “a wee bit ragged” is not, typically, a way to convey how truly terrific a play is.

Ahh, but this is not a typical play. It is, in fact, one of the funniest and most satisfying evenings of entertainment I’ve experienced at OSF.

I only mention this raggedness because the few dropped lines and momentary lapses merely opened additional opportunities for comic genius Mark Bedard and his cohorts to capitalize on.

Bedard, reprising his Groucho role from “Animal Crackers” (click for my review from the 2012 OSF season), adapted the original Marx Brothers farce in the Vaudevillian tradition of high-risk, high-reward, high-wire comedy that depended less on a script than on spontaneous, in-the-moment, in-your-face improvisations. In a more serious context, you could call it theatrical mindfulness.

The only thing predictable is the production’s unpredictability. Anything can happen…and anything does. And, since this play is–more than anything–a living, breathing organism with its umbilical cord long-since severed, I can predict with some certainty that no two performances can possibly be alike.

I don’t mean to suggest that every pun, crack and sight gag works. I couldn’t even begin to calculate a batting average. The point is, they don’t all have to work. In fact, if they all did, the production would hardly be as compelling.

Making this experience even more endearing—and funnier—is Bedard’s penchant for, and prowess at, on-the-money, in-the-moment commentary and critiques of the performance. At one point, he cracked “This scene is taking too long already.”

Think of Bedard as an insatiable comic predator. If there’s a laugh to be hunted down, he will hunt it down. Or die trying.

And his commentary isn’t merely limited to himself and the on-stage crew, either, because–in this production–the traditional Fourth Wall between performer and the audience is not even a vague rumor. The actors are apt to crawl through the rows to find a welcome lap; and audience members will feel some comfort entering the fray.

When, during a rare few beats of dramatic pin-drop silence, someone in the audience crinkled a wrapper, Bedard pounced: “Oh yeah, now you open your candy!”

While it didn’t occur to me, my play-going partner, who also adored the production, expressed some discomfort that the female actors didn’t seem to have, or take, the opportunities to be as improvisational as the males.

As for the plot, it’s mostly–and happily–irrelevant; you can read it on line: http://www.osfashland.org/productions/2014-plays/the-cocoanuts.aspx

Director David Ivers took Bedard’s brilliant adaptation and clearly gave his consummately creative cast license to take whatever leaps seemed appropriate to the moment.

John Tufts’ Chico and Brent Hinkley’s Harpo, are inspired as Groucho’s sidekicks. The semi-straight romantic lead of Zeppo is handled deftly and with genuine sweetness by Eduardo Placer, who is also included in the zaniness.

As Groucho’s familiar foil, K.T. Vogt is, properly (as in the film tradition of Margaret Dumont), a stentorian force of nature. How she manages to maintain her straight face is beyond me!

And then there is David Kelly who brings his usual multi-dimensionality and grand comedic touch to the relatively small and catalytic role of Detective Hennessey, who quite literally shucks his trench coat and hard-as-nails demeanor for a most outrageous mien. I’d see Kelly in anything. Anywhere. Anytime.

This is a musical, and the four-piece band behind the screen serves the frenetic action well, while doing justice to the Irving Berlin tunes, including “Always,” sung as a lovely duet by Jennie Greenberry as Polly and her paramour Jamison (Placer).

While Bedard pays honest homage to the essence of the Marx Brothers version, serving up the most-famous “Why a Duck?” routine, he doesn’t resist turning the popular “Cup Song” that has been seen millions of times on You Tube into a dazzling production number. (If you’re not familiar with this song, you can watch the “official” version here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cmSbXsFE3l8.

By the way, the first time I saw Bedard as Groucho, in “Animal Crackers,” I entered the theatre expecting to see a resurrection of my childhood hero. And while he certainly delivered the laughs, I couldn’t shake a discomfort with the slight disparities. In other words, my discomfort wasn’t about Bedard; it was about my unrealistic expectations.

This time around, with no such expectations, I was able to more fully appreciate Bedard for himself.

With due respects, Groucho, I believe I have a new hero.

If I didn’t see another OSF production this season, I would rank the season as a grand success. See “The Cocoanuts” at the Angus Bowmer Theatre through Nov. 2. Make sure you have time to see it more than once.

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