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Thursday, May 10, 2012

"An Evening With Groucho" at Seattle's A.C.T. Theatre -- a review

Last night at A.C.T- A Contemporary Theatre in Seattle, elements of past and present slipped next to each other like fingers in a handshake. Think of it as a friendly handshake with immortality itself, the type of immortality defined this way: As long as someone remembers us, we exist.

Frank Ferrante                                                photo provided by A.C.T. Theatre
Frank Ferrante remembers Groucho Marx. In fact, he's been obsessed with Groucho since childhood and has devoted his life to portraying the famous comedian in widely-acclaimed and award-winning performances, including a Groucho: A Life in Revue, written by Arthur Marx, Groucho's son. In 2001 Ferrnate wrote and performed in a PBS television show with the same name. Others who remember Groucho, or would like to experience this distinctive humor for the first time, can watch Ferrrante pay homage to his idol through another show he wrote himself, called An Evening With Groucho. It runs through May 20 in the theater's Bullitt Cabaret, brought to us by A.C.T.'s Central Heating Lab, under direction by Dreya Weber.

The Cabaret offered a cozy setting with small tables and chairs as well as rows of seats. The stage held a piano along with early 20th century furnishings and props, all positioned in front of a tied-back red velvet curtain. Period music added to the ambiance, as did images of the Marx Brothers and reproductions of their movie posters. The first person who took to the stage was Musical Director Jim Furmston. He not only played the straight man to Ferrante's Groucho, but also played the piano with impressive skill and great dynamics, whether featured on a solo piece, accompanying a song, or adding special effects.

Frank Ferrante and Jim Furmston on Piano        photo provided by A.C.T. Theatre

Ferrante appeared with some fanfare and introduced himself and his show. Dressed in his signature tails and tie, but without makeup, he then sat down in front of a small mirror to create the character of Groucho right in front of us. But as he rose to his feet, it seemed that some kind of magical transformation had taken place inside of him as well. Instead of Ferrante, we saw the familiar wavy-haired, cigar-carrying man who wore wire-rimed glasses and black greasepaint for a mustache and eyebrows, who rudely joked, made funny facial expressions, cavorted across the stage, and sang silly songs like "Lydia the Tattooed Lady." I couldn't believe it wasn't the real Groucho, and I wondered if Ferrante himself even knew for sure if he still was himself, after having so eerily channeled the spirit that inspired him. When he told stories of Groucho's life—in Groucho's true voice—the actor disappeared and the character's real past became our equally real present.

But it would be a mistake to give Groucho's ghost too much credit for the show's success or assume that all Ferrante did was recite his idol's most famous lines. As I watched Ferrante leave the stage to question, insult, and embarrass members of the audience in true, hilarious Groucho style, it was clear that he was no less quick-witted and funny than the famous vaudevillian he impersonates. Ferrante proved himself to be a top-notch comedian who responded with brilliant off-the-cuff comebacks to anything people said, and did so at the speed of light. And I know these gags weren't staged, since my own husband innocently drew Ferrante's attention. You can be sure that this reviewer's little black notebook and pen quickly and discreetly slipped out of sight as soon as I noticed that attention coming our way. From that point on, I made only mental notes, including one to never again choose a seat in the front row.
As those fingers of past and present clasped each other, time and again, it became clear that Ferrante's decades of intense study of all things Groucho have paid off. I came home to Tacoma well after my bedtime, but couldn't resist looking on YouTube for bits from old Marx Brothers movies or Groucho performing alone. It had been awhile since I'd seen any of that and my reaction surprised me.
Sorry, Groucho fans, but compared to those old black and white images, the richly-hued stage set at A.C.T. wasn't the only thing more colorful. I actually liked Ferrante better than the original.

For tickets and show times, please visit the A.C.T. website by clicking here:

Copyright 2012 Candace J. Brown

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