Review: OSF’s The Cocoanuts

Every year The Oregon Shakespeare Festival mixes their standard offering of the Bard’s works with a handful of plays from other sources. This year, one of those in the latter category is a staging of The Cocoanuts.

Many people today know the Marx Brothers for their movies. Fewer people know of their earlier start as a family Vaudeville act, which led them to a handful of Broadway shows before they even tried their hand at movies. In fact, some of their movies were screen adaptations of stage shows.

The Cocoanuts is one of those: launched as a Broadway production in 1925, it had 276 performances followed by a 2-year tour, and was subsequently adapted for the big screen in 1929. Like most of the Marx brothers’ best-known works, the plot is nearly incidental, other than to serve as context for Irving Berlin’s delightful musical score, and more importantly the fast-paced dialogue and physical humor of Groucho, Chico and Harpo — with Zeppo along for the ride as the straight-man.

The story takes place at a run-down hotel in Florida in the midst of a land boom. Groucho is the hotel owner, hawking nearby real estate on the side — and in particular trying to sell it to a rich widow. Zeppo is the front desk manager, who yearns for a career as an architect as well as the hand of the widow’s beautiful daughter. A poor but well-born villain also wants to marry the widow’s daughter, if only for her inheritance, and schemes with his accomplice to frame Zeppo for a robbery to get him out of the way. Chico and Harpo are hotel guests who get pulled into the hijinks, and an overbearing hotel detective rounds out the cast of characters.

The OSF company brought back the core of actors from their staging of Animal Crackers two years ago to reprise their roles, and they do great justice both to the individual roles and to the on-stage chemistry that makes the humor so seamless. The original Marx brothers had years of Vaudeville experience to help them to hone their improvisational skills, and the cast of this show have intentionally tried to bring that same edginess to this production, with a looseness to the staging that encourages ad-libs and a certain level of responsiveness to the audience. So much so, in fact, that I found myself guessing whether a particular joke was scripted or not.

On the other hand, they also show brilliantly executed comic timing. One particular scene involving two adjoining hotel rooms is a masterpiece of classic farce, with the requisite multiple doors and tightly choreographed entrances and exits.

This is a play with nine named characters, all of whom get significant stage time and a chance to show off their talents: singing, wisecracking, physical humor, or often simply trying to keep a straight face when surrounded by zany chaos. They are all caricatures, but therein lies the fun: whether the romantic hero and heroine, the villains, the overbearing mother, or the schemers, they are all foundations upon which the actors can build characters that we get to enjoy. Mark Bedard (Groucho), John Tufts (Chico), and Brent Hinckley (Harpo) are masterful in paying homage to the original Marx brothers while still keeping the roles fresh and unpredictable.

One of the advantages of staging a play such as this at OSF is that in addition to the world-class actors, they also draw on the company’s top-notch set and costume designers. The result is colorful and lavish, evoking the culture and feel of Florida in the early 20th century while also providing handy props and foils for the comic hijinks on stage.

The Cocoanuts is plain and simple fun, in a Costco-size package, without any of those pesky morals, themes or resonant messages. You’ll laugh a lot, and probably guffaw more than a few times. If you’re a fan of the Marx brothers, you’ll want to see this show. If you’re unfamiliar with the notorious brothers and their brand of comedy, this would serve as an excellent first serving which will leave you wanting much more.

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