Ladies and gentlemen, THE COCOANUTS have landed. Not in Florida, the setting for the 1929 Marx Brothers film that is the departure point for this newly adapted stage musical version by Mark Bedard, but much closer by, in southern Oregon’s Rogue Valley. And in what may prove to be one of the runaway hits of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s 2014 season, a cast of nuttily comic talents has taken up an irresistible and very loud residence in the Angus Bowmer Theatre for the next nine months. You have been warned.
On opening weekend at OSF, the order of shows matters. Just as any one play has a beginning, middle, and end, a group of four plays over three days works together in a certain way. Savvy planning takes maximum advantage of how to affect and entrance the audience, ultimately sending everyone home with a great overall buzz. It’s a carefully organized four act production.
This year THE COCOANUTS was perfectly positioned as the main event act three on Saturday night. Diehards committed to all opening shows had already seen a solid if somewhat unexciting TEMPEST as act one on Friday, and an unforgettable rendition of the rarely produced THE SIGN IN SIDNEY BRUSTEIN’S WINDOW Saturday afternoon as act two. But neither of those shows could be called a comedy. And if there is one thing a full house in a theatre longs to do, especially if they have traveled from afar to be part of a multi day gala celebration (the only way to describe opening weekend at OSF), it is laugh. No force on earth is stronger than the desire of an assembled audience to laugh. And on Saturday night, the floodgates finally opened and flew right off the hinges.
There’s two parts here to the fun: the show, and the actors. While the show itself is solid and benefits from referencing a much loved film, the real attraction of COCOANUTS is a dazzling cavalcade of OSF super stars. Much as a lot of the appeal of the Marx Brothers was the Marx Brothers themselves, as opposed to the plots they found themselves enmeshed in, this is the kind of show that succeeds or fails on the strength of brilliant physical comedy. The actors have to be good enough that they can simply stand there, look at you, and it (meaning your ability to not laugh) is all over. Mission accomplished.
But if there is one aspect of the structure of the show to call out, it is the reliance throughout on short but recurring, hair-raising improv segments. Like a pause at the top after a long roller coaster climb up and before the thundering descent, realizing that the cast, in front of a sold out house, is suddenly off book and airborne with no net or harness causes no small degree of terror (for us and them, no doubt). Will they pull it off? It takes that crazy moment of pure chaos first before the flipside of uncontainable joy when they bring it home. And on opening night, the improv moments were so good they should have all been scripted in for the rest of the run to save everyone some extra inches of stomach lining.
Commanding the shock troops of mirth is Mark Bedard as Mr. Hammer (Groucho). Bedard is fast, hyper attentive, and very much in control. On opening night, during one of those inevitable moments when an audience member decided that, yes, this quiet pause was finally the time to unfurl that glazed donut wrapped (in several layers) in what sounded like brittle Christmas present paper (were they a plant?), Bedard was instantly on it, instructing the poor suckah: “Yeah, go ahead and unwrap it now.” Hilarious. Along with a speechless Brent Hinkley as Harpo and John Tufts as Chico, Bedard leads his three musketeers into a night of endless technicolor laughs – and several prolonged scenes of spontaneity.
There’s plenty of madcap hi jinx and breathless shenanigans to keep the laughs rolling up the lower slopes of the mighty Siskiyou. But for some actors, just standing there, or making the slightest move, is sufficient to bring the house down.
Brent Hinkley. Even if you don’t know him by name, you know him. He’s that drunk guy with a ruddy nose, listing to and fro, or swiping at a butterfly in his underwear like an overgrown toddler. He’s the village idiot with a heart (if not brain) of gold. He’s the guy roused from sleep wearing an absurd vintage Shakepeare era sleeping cap. Hinkley is a master at filling in the borders of OSF scenes with such exquisitely funny detail that you can easily miss what is really going on, because you can’t look away from him. Hinkley is more center stage here than in other shows, but treat yourself some time and just keep your eyes on Hinkley the whole time he’s on stage and watch what he does.
And another: K. T. Vogt. As the bruising, outstandingly funny Mrs. Potter, who is a mother-on-a-mission (namely get that daughter married to the fella with a future, not the desk clerk), Vogt is simply too good to be believed. Channeling some of Hinkley’s butterfly chasing elan, Vogt is often just outside the narrative (and one step behind it), frumping and woozily swinging an overloaded handbag at a world that just won’t behave. She is quite possibly the single funniest person in this show – which is saying something. Unfortunately none of the production photos feature Vogt in code red mother mode, but for anyone who has seen the show, an indelible image of her teetering around stage in a somewhat cavernous dress, hefting that god almighty handbag while trying to maintain Victorian era standards, will be burned into memory. At one precious moment, pulling the rug out from under her daughter’s infatuation with the desk clerk, Mrs. Potter clarifies that there is one way to know if he (Eduardo Placer) is “just” a clerk: “One who clerks, Polly, is a clerk.” Bam. Case closed.
But don’t answer yet. You also get David Kelly, Kate Mulligan, and Jennie Greenberry. The list goes on. But in the interest of public safety and order, we should probably stop at this point.
One more improv gem (and I don’t think this is a spoiler alert as it appeared to be a one night only event). Late in the opening performance, as considerable comedic firepower had already been deployed and wheeled off stage, funny man John Tufts was delivering some pointed comments to director David Ivers where he sat in the audience, when suddenly he said something like: “Most of this show was directed by David Ivers. Except for this part.”
Uh oh! With zero warning, there we were again at the top of that roller coaster summit, plummeting in space, holding the person next to us, or screaming with our hands held high above our heads if we were really tough. The brilliant aspect of this particular foray into the unknown is that you got the feeling Bedard did not even know what was coming. Was this purely Tufts and Hinkley, deciding to insert a little something into the center of a mainstage OSF show? Do they have to, you know, CLEAR IT WITH ANYONE BEFORE DECIDING TO DO THAT?? You’d love to know. After a long and skyborne double twisting backflip, as the landing came into view and you realized Tufts was indeed going to stick it (and the roller coaster was going to stay on the tracks), Bedard could do nothing but stare deadpan at the audience for a good minute of hysterical house-destroying laughter as if to acknowledge: “So, that happened.”
It did happen. It happened again and again. And it will keep happening until November 2.
So don’t delay, visit Florida (aka Ashland) today!