Trends, fashions, celebrities and boy bands go in and out of style with the speed of the Internet, but the Marx Brothers live on. Their distinctive mix of slapstick, word play, social satire and joyful anarchy is timeless, which is why the brothers' 83-year-old film, "Animal Crackers," still elicits laughs. It's this timeless quality that makes the theatrical version of the film a promising season-opening production for the Williamstown Theatre Festival.
"Animal Crackers" began its life out in the theatrical hinterlands where the Marx Brothers fine-tuned the play before taking it to Broadway, and from there to the movie screen. Four years ago, director Henry Wishcamper staged it at Chicago's Goodman Theatre, where it became a much different play.
"I started to realize that I was adapting it, not just directing it," Wishcamper said in a telephone interview from Williamstown, where he was preparing to unveil "Animal Crackers" once again. "Once we were finished I saw what it could be and I immediately wanted to stage it again." Realizing the production "needed an extraordinarily talented cast with a great skill set, and one of the places I could get that cast was Williamstown," Wishcamper began talks with WTF artistic director Jenny Gersten shortly after the play ended its run in Chicago.
For the uninitiated, "Animal Crackers" stars Groucho Marx as African explorer Captain Spaulding, one of the many wise-cracking womanizers from the Groucho stable of characters. The guest of honor at one of those high society soirees the brothers enjoyed disrupting, the captain is joined by Marxes Chico and Harpo in the pursuit of a stolen painting.
The plot is paper thin, just there to give the Marxes a place on which to hang their verbal and physical jokes. The film drags a bit whenever the brothers surrender the stage, particularly when the romantic leads stumble through their paces.
Wishcamper said his adaptation is streamlined while maintaining the original's vaudevillian essence, and includes much of the music from the play that was abandoned for the screen. The movie's cast of 28 has been reduced to nine in his production, with some cast members playing multiple roles.
"The play is a celebration of the Marx Brothers and a very different experience for audiences than the movie," said Wishcamper, adding mischievously that, "the last 20 minutes of the play have nothing to do with the last 20 minutes of the movie."
Joey Slotnick as Groucho and Jonathan Brody as the faux-Italian conniver Chico are reprising their roles from the Chicago production. Brad Aldous plays the silent imp Harpo.
In a phone interview, Slotnick said the key to playing a Marx brother, Groucho in particular, is in demonstrating unwavering confidence.
"The Marxes were iconic clown figures, very confident idiots who were convinced they were the smartest guys in the room and would always get what they want," said Slotnick with a laugh. "And they always did."
"The actors can't be afraid to fail," added Paul Kalina, who serves as a director of physical comedy in Williamstown as he did for the Chicago production, in a phone conversation. "The Marx Brothers didn't care. They would fall down, get up and blame you for it. That's the essence of a clown."
Slotnick, a movie and television actor who said he particularly enjoys the stage, worked with Kalina and Wishcamper in finding a way to make the iconic Captain Spaulding his own while also capturing Groucho.
"You can't not think about Groucho's rhythms, the tenor of his voice," Slotnick said of his balancing act. "Without that fast-paced clip, it's just not funny. At the same time, I am incorporating some silly stuff that is just me."
Kalina, a co-founder of 500 clown, a Chicago-based avant-garde comedy troupe, said making comedy work involves doing your homework.
"To get at the essence of Groucho, you read, you watch, and you absorb at a muscular and cellular level," Kalina explained of a comedian he describes as easy to caricature but hard to portray. "Joey is relentless in his research. Actors have to bring in their own personal truths [when playing a familiar character] and if done right a marriage happens. You work to find a synthesis that is so truthful audiences buy it."
Timeless comic routines aside, Wishcamper and Slotnick are in agreement as to why the Marx Brothers still resonate.
"The Marxes were anarchists," said Slotnick. "Their humor still works today, especially with the increasing divide between the haves and the have-nots."
"That sense of anarchy and desire to bring the high society types down to the level of everyone else by any means necessary was unusual for a period comedy and is still appealing today," said Wishcamper.
The director observed that he needed "specialists" for his cast who are experts in dance, song, or physical comedy and was able to find them. But because he also required all of his actors to sing, dance and take pratfalls, they had to be willing to move out of their comfort zones.
"It's amazing to see an amazing dancer, it's amazing to hear an amazing singer," Wishcamper explained. "But it is also fun to watch someone throw themselves into something that isn't their specialty and do it as if they are the best in the world at it."
With that confidence, they are true to the spirit of the Marx Brothers.
On stage ...
What: “Animal Crackers.” Book by George S. Kaufman & Morrie Ryskind. Music and lyrics by Bert Kalmar & Harry Ruby. Adapted and directed by Henry Wishcamper
Who: Williamstown Theatre Festival
When: Tonight-July 14. Eves.: Tue.-Thu. 7:30 (no evening performance July 4); Fri., Sat. 8. Mats.: Thu. 4; Sat. 3:30; Sun. 2; Fri. July 5 at 2.
Where: Main Stage, ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance, 1000 Main St. (Route 2), Williamstown
How: (413) 597-3400; wtfestival.org; at the box office