Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Groucho: Why does he Walk That Way?

My friend David asks: why does Groucho Marx walk with that weird slouch-like lope?

Bear with me, there's a purpose behind the question. The subject is the (generally, quite good) new production of the Marx Brothers' Animal Crackers at the Ashland Shakespeare Festival. A purpose, but first the answer. The answer is: we don't know why Groucho walks around that way but Groucho knows. It's part of his existential essence; we aren't meant to know.

Which explains the difficulty faced Mark Bedard as he tries to mimic Groucho. We know he's got almost everything right. Cigar, check. Fast talker, check. Wisecracker, check. And slouch--well, the best conceivable imitation, but still and imitation; you know that Bedard knows as we know that we don't know why the real thing.

The fault (if it is one) isn't really Bedard's. The problem is that Groucho is so much of a compelling presence that he drowns out all imitations. It's like the time I went to a performance of Bellini's Norma with a good, but not quite astounding, soprano in the title role. On the way home, the only voice in my head belonged to Joan Sutherland. I had heard Sutherland sing Norma--the night before, actually--but only on CD. Still, her digital performance was so pervasive that it overwhelmed all competition. You might call it the flip side of the "George Costanza problem," where Jason Alexander was so good in his role as number one sidekick to Seinfeld that we'll never recognize him as Jason, only as George.

Luckier was Brent Hinkley as Harpo, a fine scene-stealer in his own right. He looked and acted enough like Harpo that you knew what he was up to, but your mental picture of Harpo was never so strong as to trump the image in front of you.

Luckier still Daisuke Tsuji as Chico--good enough as imitation to satisfy the purists, but so good comic in his own right that he was able to carry off riffs that Chico never thought of.   The show's a bit weird overall and I'm not 100 percent sure it survives transition back to the scripted stage (although I suppose the stage, if not scripted, is where it all began).  Still, it's full of the kind of stuff that Ashland does well, and as a long, loving look into the metaphysical rear-view mirror, it's probably the best you have any right to expect.

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