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Wednesday, March 7, 2012

OSF 2012: Hooray for Captain Spauling; Two Reminiscences (theater review)

There was once a fascinating and rather strange collection of vaudeville materials maintained by a little-known and struggling nonprofit called the Society for Preservation of Variety Arts (SPVA), housed in the basement of the Magic Castle in Los Angeles. I once had the good fortune to visit the collection beneath the Castle, and explore its archive of art and various special collections bequeathed by actors and other members of the theater world. Some of the donors had made a successful transition into film from vaudeville, though most were names unfamiliar to me. But they came to life for me in rows of black notebooks crammed full of comedians' personal collections of jokes--their stock in trade. These were the accretions of lifetimes of struggle in the ragtag world of vaudeville, and they were both sad and hilarious. Reading through them was to see the universality of humor, as the jokes were worked and reworked in cramped handwriting, with different dates, cities, audiences and theaters noted.

For the frustrated archivist in me, that was a magical experience and I still remember it with a thrill. Sadly, the Society fell prey to fiscal shortages and as far as I know, it was finally disbanded. Where are these artifacts of a lost art form now? I hope they're housed safely somewhere, to be brought out again by a generation capable of appreciating them. The very rich entertainment world centered in Los Angeles could not even find in its pockets the pittance of monetary lint it would have taken to maintain this archive remembering their forebears.

Mark Bedard as Capt. Spaulding (Groucho)
That is both introduction to my review and the gist of it: when I visited the SPVA, it was a given that the time of vaudeville was long gone, and the world of variety entertainment remained only as an echo in the culture that grew into film and later types of performance art.

Well, all I can say is, hooray for Captain Spaulding! The variety arts live again in this wonderful OSF production of the George S. Kaufman play. It's a brilliant tribute, recreating in a vital and convincing way the experience of how it must have been to attend the actual stage production that the later film was based upon. Marx Brothers movies are very entertaining and at times surpassingly hilarious, but by all accounts they don't hold a candle to the Marx Brothers in person, on stage, and now I can see that must be true. This production is first rate, and it's way better than a movie. There's nothing like hearing singers and seeing dancers and watching pratfalls and puzzling over stage illusions in person. Animal Crackers encompasses and celebrates the wide variety of performance arts vaudeville was famous for - so many skills, and they go by so fast, that it's impossible to remember them all, much less list them. The performers are amazing, and the live musicians (on stage), the set and staging, all of it - absolutely wonderful.

My thanks to everyone who played a part in putting together this production. I had such fun!

Comment: My friend Bert, who is 90-something, sent this comment via email and I share it here:
You now know someone who, at the age of 12,  did see both the original Broadway production of "Animal Crackers" featuring the uncontainable Brothers Marx and also the current OSF production of a revision of "Animal Crackers" starring an extremely gifted cast, including but by no means limited to the actors impersonating Groucho, Chico and Harpo inhabiting Captain Spalding, Ravelli and The Professor.

It is, however, completely unfair for me to compare the two experiences even up, since obviously I am not exactly the same person as that wide-eyed 12-year-old.

He giggled.  I guffawed.

He concentrated on the acrobatics.  I was enchanted by the timing.

He missed most of the sexual innuendo.  I didn't.

He liked the way the villain lady got her come-uppance.  I heard the whole of high society being parodied.

He thought the repartee was fast.  I heard the one-liners pile on top of each other so quickly there was no time to breathe between them.

He thought some of the love songs were "soupy."  I thought "We're Four of the Three Musketeers" was brilliantly hilarious.

This production is one of OSF's triumphs and those who miss it are depriving themselves of an experience that will make them a great deal happier!
Bert added
I've seen the OSF show twice - thus far.  (And there will be more viewings to come as I take out-of-town visitors, family and friends, to see it in coming months.)  Both times, there was ad-libbing both in dialogue and in action, so my experience thus far is that it hasn't been identical performance to performance.  It's been an adventure with surprises each time.  (But that was even more true of the original Broadway production where the original Marx brothers loosely followed Kaufman's script and took off night after night in whatever direction trhe spirit moved them.  Kaufman is famously alleged to have begged a noisy friend during one performance, "Shhh! I think I just heard one of my lines!")

Notes: if you're a John Tufts fan (as I am) you can see him as Emmanuel Rivelli (Chico) until April 7. After that, he rotates in the role with Daisuke Tsuji (who I'm sure is also very fine).
Here's a link to the play at the OSF site. See also their videos and podcasts for background material.
Through Nov. 4, 2012

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