ASHLAND — Don’t hesitate, get your tickets now, or even sooner.
Seats will definitely be moving fast, and understandably so, for the uproariously hilarious “The Cocoanuts,” a comic romp that’s one of the highlights of the just-opened 2014 season at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland.
Following the success of the festival’s 2012’s version of “Animal Crackers,” a side-splitting laughter based on the Marx Brothers classic 1930 film, the bros are back and creating more wacky joy in “Cocoanuts.” Mark Bedard, who delightfully channeled Groucho in “Animal Crackers,” is incredibly comfortable as the head Marx madman. So comfortable that he wrote the adaptation, from the 1929 film, the brothers first feature length movie, which catapulted them to stardom.
The audience was applauding even before the play opened, and Groucho didn’t disappoint. “Did you miss me?” he quipped when he suddenly appeared on stage. Then, wagging a mischievous grin, he deadpanned, “You’ll just have to improve your aim.”
Groucho and his brothers, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo aim to please, and for 2-1/2 hours they’re mostly on target. With their fast-paced deliveries, catching all the humor is impossible but there are puns galore. “I’ll put blankets in your room for free,” Groucho, as Mr. Hammer, the owner of the bankrupt Cocoanuts Hotel, tells a guest. “There’s no cover charge.”
There is also incredible choreography, word play, physical comedy, a combination of beautiful and intentionally awful singing, sight gags, comic foils, a jewelry heist, slapstick and spontaneous ad-libbing.
Groucho and his brothers proved quick to disregard the invisible wall between the stage and audience, dragging one viewer up for a short cameo, and when during a rare quiet moment a play viewer opened a crinkly piece of candy, they bounded off-stage to gleefully harass and tease. Because improvisation is part of the routine, no two performances will be alike.
Bedard shines as Groucho, but equally carrying on are John Tufts and Brent Hinkley, who reprise their 2012 roles, and gymnastic rolls, as fast-talking Chico and the mute Harpo. K.T. Vogt returns as the clueless matron, this time as the wealthy Mrs. Potter.
Adding spice is the multi-dimensional David Kelly, this time around as snoopy Detective Hennessey, who fumes, foams and, when he literally loses his shirt, yelps a deliciously off-key, “I want my shirt, I can’t be happy without my shirt!” The cast, not surprisingly, is deep and talented, including Eduardo Placer as Zeppo, Robert Vincent Frank as Harvey Yates, Kate Mulligan as Penelop and Jennie Greenberry as Polly.
Irvin Berlin’s songs are part of the delights, from Groucho’s eyebrow raising, “Why Am I a Hit with the Ladies?” to the lovely “Always.”
There’s a plot revolving around a Florida land scam but, really, who cares? What really matters is director David Ivers keeps the story flowing, seemingly recognizing that during any performance what’s scripted might overflow in any direction, including planned and unplanned interactions with and in the audience.
While some of what happens is spontaneous, significant scenes are spot-on choreographed, from a slam-glasses-on-the-table routine to a scene involving half the cast, four doors and two rooms.
I can’t wait to see it again.