Animal Crackers – A Laugh Riot at the Garfield

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Horatius Jamison, secretary, and Captain Spaulding, the African explorer, with Hives the butler and Mrs. Rittenhouse, the hostess. Landskroener is picture-perfect as Groucho Marx, voice, mustache and all.  (Ian Ellison, Jim Landskoener, Brad Chaires, Diane Landskroener)     Photo by Jane Jewell

Fans of the Marx Brothers–and of vintage comedy in general–have a treat waiting for them at the Garfield Center. The musical version of Animal Crackers – directed by Jennifer Kafka Smith – is one of the funniest shows to appear on the local stage in recent memory.

Animal Crackers began as a 1928 Broadway musical with a book by George S. Kaufmann and Morrie Ryskind, starring the Marx Brothers and Margaret Dumont, Groucho’s long-time comic foil. It was the brothers’ second Broadway hit, running for 191 performances. It was also the brothers’ last stage show since the advent of talking pictures made it possible to transfer their fast-talking brand of comedy to film. The play has been revived several times, starting in 1982, with various changes – notably the substitution of some better-known songs for those in the original musical and the removal of material that today’s audiences are likely to find objectionable. The Garfield’s production is based on a 2009 version produced at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.

The musical became the Marx Brothers’ second film in 1930, with most of the principals from the stage show reprising their roles. Lilian Roth took the role of Arabella, the romantic lead. The movie, which is probably the best-known version of the show, was shot in Astoria, New York, where Paramount Pictures had an East Coast studio. And with the film censorship of the Hayes Code still four years in the future, the film was much racier than later Hollywood productions – giving the Marx Brothers a chance to show off their zany brand of humor, including a fair quota of double-entendres. And while several characters and some subplots from the stage version were cut, the movie retained many of the best tunes from the stage show, including “Hooray for Captain Spaulding,” which later became Groucho Marx’s TV theme song.   And in case you were wondering, “schnorrer” is a Yiddish word meaning moocher or con artist.

The cast of Animal Crackers in a dance choreographed by Kimberly Stevens.    Photo by Jane Jewell

The plot involves a large party given by Mrs. Rittenhouse, a Long Island society matron. The party features the appearance of Captain Spalding, an African explorer and international celebrity, and the first American exhibition of a famous French painting. Mrs. Rittenhouse is anxious for her daughter, Arabella, to meet a suitable husband. She also wants to reestablish her place in society, which has been eroding since the death of her husband. Guests arrive, including a rich New York businessman, Roscoe W. Chandler, and Mrs. Whitehead, a social rival.

At last Captain Spalding (Groucho’s character) arrives, followed by an Italian musician, Ravelli (Chico’s character) and the Professor (Harpo). And much hilarity ensues, including chases, wisecracks, slapstick, double-talk, puns, songs and dances – and oh yes, a couple of love stories and a plot to steal the painting. None of it makes much sense – really, did you expect it to? – and this production makes no attempt to tie it all together. It’s just one heck of a lot of fun.  Enjoy the ride and forget about the destination.

Capt. Spaulding and Ravelli examine the forged painting as the two lovers look on, Photo by Jane Jewell

With so little story, the play depends heavily on the casting, and the local theater community has risen to the occasion. Jim Landskroener takes the role of Captain Spalding, complete with a painted-on Groucho mustache, and he gives a brilliant performance. Whether he’s reeling off a string of nonsense, mugging at the audience, dancing, or delivering a patter song, he’s a thoroughly believable Groucho, right down to the accent. This role is the key to the whole production, and it’s right on target.

Kirby Powell is hilarious as the Professor, the Harpo Marx character. It’s a role that calls for a wide repertory of physical schtick, and Powell does it with verve – all without saying a single word.   In grand Harpo style, the Professor toots his little hand-held, squeeze-bulb horn and chases women up and down stairs.  And it wouldn’t be Harpo if he didn’t play the harp at least once.  This performance really has to be seen to be believed.

The Marx Brothers live at the Garfield!     Photo by Jane Jewell

Ravelli, the con man/musician of the play, is played by Zac Ryan. His character, originally played by Chico Marx, is a variation on an age-old comic theme, the conniving servant who lives by his wits. Ryan does a great job with the character, including the Italian accent and the physical schtick for some of his bits with the Professor. Very nicely done.

Diane Landskroener, a fine comic actress in her own right, has a juicy role as Mrs. Rittenhouse. A stereotypical social climber, this character gives the actress plenty of opportunity to mock the upper classes and their pretensions. And as a foil to Groucho’s absurdities, Mrs. Rittenhouse has a full platter of double-takes, sputtering outrage, and shocked decorum to deploy – and Landskroener does it all in fine style.

Another key role is Hives, the butler – well played by Brad Chaires, who deploys a formidable deadpan while trying to preserve decorum and delivering straight lines. And when he steps out of the role, it’s even funnier. A good bit of casting!

There are two romantic subplots, featuring Dan Guidice and Gretchen Sachse, and Natalie Lane and Bee Betley. The young lovers get to deliver some of the better songs in the show, including “Three Little Words” (Lane and Betley) and “Watching the Clouds Go By” (Guidice and Sachse).  All four have good voices that are showcased nicely by their duets and ensemble numbers.

Betley plays Wally Winston, the intrepid reporter cum gossip columnist who wants to get the scoop on the various celebrities and big-wigs at the party, with an eye to getting a raise and a promotion.  He teams up with Arabella (Natalie Lane), Mrs. Rittenhouse’s flapper daughter who is looking both for a fiancé and a way to raise her family’s social profile.  Wally, handsome and charming, is the perfect candidate for both!  Unfortunately, one of the scandalous tidbits about the various famous guests that she whispers to Wally instead of earning him a bonus puts his job in jeopardy.  But it seems that this romance of opportunity might even survive poverty and obscurity.

On the other hand, true love is the name of the game for Wally’s photographer colleague, Mary Stewart, played by Gretchen Saches.  She is secretly engaged to the struggling artist John Parker played by Dan Guidice.  Together they plot to substitute his painting for the famous painting on display at the party.  Of course, their plot goes astray in the most hilarious way.

The cast of Animal Crackers at the Garfield.      Photo by Jane Jewell

Mike Heffron is convincing as millionaire Roscoe Chandler, and Julie Lawrence displays a nice French accent as Madame Doucet, an art impresario. Mallory Westlund does a good job as Mrs. Whitehead, Mrs. Rittenhouse’s social rival, conniving convincingly with Grace (Brianna Johnson) to bring down Mrs. Rittenhouse. And Ian Ellison, as Horatius Jamison, Spaulding’s secretary, is one of the few characters who manages to fluster Groucho – in a role originally played by Zeppo Marx.

M.G. Brosius, Brooke Ezzo, and Robin Wood contribute solidly, singing and dancing in the ensemble and doing the occasional bit of stage business without a hitch.

Barbi Bedell outdoes herself with the costumes for this production – all period-perfect and all visually stunning. Likewise, the set, designed by Kafka Smith and built by Jim Landskroener, is both striking and functional. The grand double staircase completes the image of a mansion and the provides a perfect setting both for chase scenes and ensemble song and dance numbers.  Michelle Sensenig provides flawless piano accompaniment–with some help from Chico Marx. A couple of the singers/actors were hard to hear, even from the front of the auditorium; and there were occasional pitch problems with a few of the musical numbers but these problems do not spoil the overall performance.

Choreographer Kimberly Stevens deserves special mention for the energetic dance scenes in which the entire ensemble stepped and twirled in the Charleston and other authentic dances of the era.

The social-climbing Mrs. Rittenhouse (Diane Landskroener) greets her rivals Mrs. Whitehead (Mallory Westlund ) and Grace Carpenter (Brianna Johnson). Photo by Jane Jewell

Kafka Smith said she has been a Marx Brothers fan for as long as she can remember, with Animal Crackers a particular favorite. It shows in this production — everyone involved is obviously having fun, and the fun is contagious. She studied old Marx brothers films in order to flawlessly reproduce the various signature bits of “business” that the Marx brothers were known for.  You will love the bit with the cardboard table.

The show would be a good introduction to the theater for young playgoers; the raunchier bits of the movie version have been edited out, while the antics are fully intact – if anything, they’re funnier seen live on stage. This really is one of the funniest shows you’re likely to see any time soon, a laugh riot from start to finish.  Both kids and adults will love the slapstick while older teens and adults will appreciate the outrageous puns and the not-so-subtle mockery of social pretensions.  This show is hilarious. Go see it!

Animal Crackers runs through Sept. 30, with performances at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and Sunday matinees at 3 p.m. Tickets are $20 for general admission; $15 for seniors and military personnel; and $10 for students. For reservations, call 410-810-2060 or visit www.garfieldcenter.org.

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Chesapeake Film Festival Spotlight: ‘Riverment’ Director Shayla Racquel

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While every year the Chesapeake Film Festival brings to the Mid-Shore the best examples of independent filmmaking, with many of their annual selections going on to be full feature success stories with awards and a broad public audience, some of the really exceptional parts of the festival are devoted to showcasing the work of an entirely new generation of directors.

Independent to the core, creative, and with sometimes the simplest of equipment, like using only a smartphone camera, these young filmmakers can produce the same quality of storytelling in short form as their older, more experienced colleagues can do with full feature films.

Shayla Racquel is one of those new filmmakers, and Riverment is one of those films.

In 2018, Shayla completed Riverment, a short film that discusses intergenerational trauma while comparing and contrasting movements. The film follows the relationship between a grandmother and a granddaughter to highlight how women have been, and will continue to be, at the forefront of all political and social movements.

The Spy sat down with Shayla in College Park last month to talk about her life and film work.

This video is approximately three minutes in length. For more information about the Chesapeake Film Festival please go here 

Meet the Author: Neal Jackson at the BookPlate

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Neal Jackson

Come meet photojournalist Neal Jackson Friday, Sept. 21, at the BookPlate, 112 Cross St., where he will discuss his new book, Market, with Marcie Dunn Ramsey. The talk begins at 6 p.m., and copies of the book will be available for purchase and to be signed by the author.

Public markets occupy a central role in every developed or developing nation in the world. They provide an avenue of economic entrepreneurship for large numbers of people, as the cost of entry is low and the marketing expense is minimal. They are often a critical source of household essentials food, clothing, cleaning supplies, even building materials and hardware. Finally, they provide employment for large numbers of people.

But beyond these economic functions, they perform a social purpose. People connect with their friends, exchange community information and gossip, and pass along political and social messages. At its core, however, it is the vendors who define the markets. Their personalities, interactions, goods, cries to customers and, yes, even the twinkle in their eyes, combine to create a market s atmosphere its soul.

Jackson set out on a worldwide odyssey to capture the personalities of these market vendors in portraiture. Via images taken on site in front of a portable backdrop, the sellers, their goods, and the market’s soul come visually alive. Have a seat and immerse yourself in the faces, clothes, and soul which each of the vendors brings to their particular market.

Jackson is a co-founder of Trauma Training for Journalists, a nonprofit volunteer organization providing safety and first aid training for hazardous environments to freelance journalists around the world. He has taught photojournalism at the International Center of Photography in New York City and around the world in the Foundry Photojournalism Workshop. Before going to law school at Georgetown University, he worked as a print reporter and editor. He served as chief legal officer of NPR from 1996-2008. He lives with his wife, Sandra Willett Jackson, in Queen Anne’s County.

For more information, call the BookPlate at 410-778-4167.

Spy Minute: A Birthday Party for the Academy Art Museum

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There was a full day of birthday activities at the Academy Art Museum on Saturday to celebrate sixty remarkable  years of service to the Mid-Shore. As with the actual mission of the museum to teach and show art, the open house allowed visitors to look at paintings from its permanent collection, participate in community art project to produce a commemorative flag, listen in on a class, or simply chit-chat with friends.

The Spy was there to capture some of the fun.

This video is approximately one minute in length.  For more information about the Academy Art Museum please go here

Academy Art Museum Crafts Show: A Preview with Alison Cooley and Craig Fuller

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For thousands of artists and collectors each year there are a handful of crafts shows throughout the country known for their unique quality, and it is extremely good fate for the Eastern Shore that the Academy Art Museum’s annual crafts show is one of those select few.

With a tough selection process, where only one out of three are chosen to show their work in Easton, the AAM Crafts Show has turned out to be one of the most delightful parts of the busy fall art season for both devotees of American craft but all on the Mid-Shore who appreciate the extraordinary talent it takes to produce these different kinds of work of art.

The Spy sat down with operations director Alison Cooley and Chair Craig Fuller, this year’s chairs, to get a quick debriefing on what to expect when the doors open on October 19th but what will be online here well before then.

This video is approximately two minutes minutes in length. For more information about the Academy Art Museum Craft Show please go here

 

The Fall Season: A Different Kind of Downrigging Presentation

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Every year, the Kent Council Arts Council hands out critically important operational support to Kent County’s numerous arts organizations and artists. That has been their mission since the KCAC was formed and they do a conscientious job with that task.

But the Arts Council also plays a leading role in a few select projects a year where its director takes an active role in helping produce community cultural events that interconnect different forms of expression, from poetry to theatre, to help celebrate the arts in Kent County.

One of those projects is now scheduled in partnership with the Sultana Education Foundation for the 2018 Downrigging weekend. Poet Robert Earl Price will be working with KCAC’s John Schratwieser and Janes Church in Chestertown to present a dramatic interpretation of Price’s work. The Unlading.  The poem,

 acknowledging the historic slave transportation purpose of the same style of ship (ie: the Dutch Man of War, and the clipper ship) as a few of the ships taking part in Downrigging) has now been repurposed into a thirty-minute theatrical production in one of the Eastern Shore’s oldest and grandest African-American churches.

The Spy sat down with John a few weeks ago to talk about this very different kind of Downrigging programming.

This video is approximately three minutes in length. The UNLADING; A Dramatized Poem, written and directed by Robert Earl Price, Commissioned and Produced by the Kent County Arts Council for Sultana Education Foundation’s Downrigging Weekend 2018.

Performances are free and will be held at Janes United Methodist Church, 120 S. Cross Street, Chestertown as follows:

Friday, October 26, 2018 – 6:00 p.m.
Saturday, October 27, 2018 – 1:30 p.m. and 7 p.m.
Sunday, October 28, 2018 – 1:30 p.m.

 

Church Hill’s Sisters Rosensweig a Winner

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Two sisters, Pfeni and Sara, relive childhood games. (Colleen Minahan and Melissa McGlynn)      Photo by Steve Atkinson

Theater lovers – do not miss Wendy Wasserstein’s The Sisters Rosensweig, now playing at Church Hill Theatre.

The play was originally produced in Seattle in 1992, then moved to New York’s off-Broadway Mitzi Newhouse Theater at the end of the year, and after 149 performances, reopened on Broadway at the Ethel Barrymore Theater, where it ran for an additional 549 performances. It was nominated in practically every possible category of the major awards, winning in many.  It was a Tony Award nomination as best play of 1993, and won the Outer Critics Circle Award as best play that same year.

Directed by Daniel Sullivan, the New York production featured Jane Alexander, Madeline Kahn and Christine Estabrook in the three title roles. Kahn won the Outer Critics Circle and Tony awards as best actress, and the Drama Desk award as best featured actress, while Alexander took the Drama Desk award for best actress. And Sullivan was recognized as best director by the Outer Critics Circle. The play also brought Wasserman the William Inge Award for Distinguished Achievement in American Theater.

Built around three Jewish-American sisters whose lives have gone in dramatically different directions, the play is set in the oldest sister Sara’s London home, where she is about to celebrate her 54th birthday. A banking executive, she is in many ways the most successful of the trio. Visiting to join in the celebration are her two sisters, one a travel journalist, Pfeni, whose home is wherever there’s a good story.  The third sister, Gorgeous, is a suburban Boston housewife who’s become a star giving advice on a local talk radio. They are joined by various friends and boyfriends, each of whom embodies a different aspect of their lives. As the celebration moves along, it becomes clear that Merv, a friend of one of Pfeni’s boyfriends, has fallen for Sara.

There are plenty of laughs to be had throughout the evening, but at bottom this is a play with a very serious focus. Wasserstein described her play’s subject as “being Jewish,” and there is a large element of that onstage – notably with Gorgeous, the most devout of the trio, who has come to London with her rabbi and a group of women from their synagogue. But the others are also keenly aware of their heritage – even the atheistic Pfeni describes herself at one point as “the wandering Jew.” And the plot, rather than a series of “dramatic” events, is basically a story of self-definition and discovery – as all the main characters go through some sort of epiphany during the course of the play. All three sisters have rebelled in different ways against their mother and their traditional upbringing.  Sara’s teenage daughter Tess is carrying on the tradition, resisting her mother’s plans for her and trying to chart her own path.

Director Shelagh Grasso has brought together a strong cast, with no weak performances. This is especially true of the three lead roles, the sisters for whom the play is named. The sisters clearly love one another despite their very different personalities and different choices in life; one of the play’s most affecting scenes is when the three sit together on Sara’s couch, drinking wine and enjoying a rare chance to just be together.

Colleen Minahan, who appeared last year with Shore Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, is outstanding in the role of Sara, who on the surface is the most successful and fulfilled of the sisters. She speaks with a British accent and considers America to be in serious decline. Minahan gives the character–who at first seems distant and even snobbish–an element of tenderness that comes out as we follow her relationship with her family and others in her life.

Pfeni, the free-spirit sister, dances with her boyfriend, Geoffrey. (Melissa McGlynn and John Schratweiser)         Photo by Steve Atkinson

Melissa McGlynn, well known to Garfield Center audiences, plays Pfeni, the peripatetic journalist just in from Bombay and on her way to who knows where? McGlynn does a good job of conveying her character’s high-energy, unconventional lifestyle. She arrives at Sara’s home with a half-dozen shopping bags that Pfeni uses instead of luggage. And when later, the character reveals a more conventional inner core, McGlynn conveys that change convincingly. An excellent performance by one of the stars of the local theater community.

Jen Friedman is perfectly cast as Dr. Gorgeous Teitelbaum – the role could have been written for her. Yet as funny as the character can be, Friedman doesn’t let us forget that Gorgeous is real, with problems and desires that go beyond the easy laughs to make her a sympathetic human being. A wonderful performance with absolutely fabulous fashions!  Gorgeous wears hot pink and longs to own a pair of Manolo Blahnik shoes.

Jen Friedman is Dr. Gorgeous who gives fashion and relationship advice on a radio talk show. She knows how to accessorize!      Photo by Steve Atkinson

John Haas gives an engaging performance as Merv, the New York furrier who falls for Sara. Successfully carrying on the business that his father and grandfather established, he can joke about the new era when some customers object to real animal fur — and how he has adapted to this with “artificial animal skin” coats. Hass effectively projects the character’s openness and honesty — and his vulnerability as a recent widower.  Haas portrays both Merv’s warmth and strength as a man who knows who he is and is comfortable in his own skin.

John Schratweiser of Kent County Arts Council is hilarious as Geoffrey, a bisexual London theater producer. Returning to the local stage after several years working on the western shore, Schratweiser brings a facility both with physical schtick and polished delivery of lines to the part. It’s good to see him back on the boards – let’s hope this is the first of many new roles for him.

Bob Chauncey takes the role of Nick, a supercilious Englishman who looks somewhat askance at the sisters’ American roots. According to the director, he came on board for the play with minimal rehearsal – it certainly doesn’t show. A very nice performance in a small part.

The whole family comes together for the birthday party. (Jen Friedman, Nick Carter, Shannon Whitaker, Colleen Minahan, and Melissa McGlynn) Photo by Steve Atkinson

Tess, Sara’s daughter, is played by Shannon Whitaker. Tess is getting ready for her first year of college, to be spent at a proper British university – but she has a strong streak of social activism, and wants to go to Lithuania to take part in that country’s break away from the collapsing Soviet Union. Whitaker is convincing as a rebellious teenager who comes to realize there’s more to her life than rebellion.

Nick Carter plays Tess’s working-class boyfriend Tom, who is dedicated to the cause of Lithuanian freedom. A good job in a part that’s full of one-liners, and an especially nice job with the character’s accent.

The set, representing Sara’s living room, was designed by Grasso and her husband Carmen. Carmen Grasso and Tom Rhodes built the set. As we’ve come to expect of CHT sets, it’s absolutely spectacular, with its elegant ten-foot tall white pillars conveying the essence of Sara’s posh lifestyle.

Costumes are very well done.  The characters wear basically what one would expect the characters to be wearing some 25 years ago in London – ranging from Geoffrey’s dance in his underwear to Nick’s correct formal evening wear and Tom’s scruffy t-shirt and jeans, topped off by a Mohawk hair-cut.  The three sisters’ personalities are shown in their fashion choices–with Sara appearing in expensive business dress, elegant silk robes and white tennis togs while free-spirit Pfeni wears casual, flowing, almost-hippie attire.  And Gorgeous is gorgeous in bright colors with scarves and jewelry to match.  Kudos to the costume crew.

Bob Chauncey is Nick, the millionaire businessman. Photo by Steve Atkinson

Grasso has brought out strong performances from the entire cast, and the play is a wonderful testimony to the strength of the local theater community. Adult situations and language may make this production inappropriate for the very youngest theatergoers, but everyone else should make it a point to see it.

The Sisters Rosensweig continues through Sept. 23, with performances at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and at 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $20 apiece for the general public, $15 for CHT members and $10 for students. Call 410-556-6003 or visit churchhilltheatre.org to make reservations.

Chesapeake Film Festival 2018: It Starts with a Trailer by Kindall Rende

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One of the great traditions of film festivals everywhere is a trailer produced by either a well-known or inspiring filmmaker every year to encourage attendance. Depending on such things as size and budget, the hope is that the commissioned piece, even as a teaser, becomes a short film unto itself.

And the Chesapeake Film Festival is part of that club. Year after year, filmmakers are selected to entice and intrigue viewers to take a break and come to see the film screenings. And this year it has been produced by Talbot County’s Kindall Rende of 3 More Frames. The Spy received an early preview copy to share for the CFF which starts October 11.

This video is approximately two minutes in length. For more information on the Chesapeake Film Festival for 2018 please go here

AAM Celebrates 60 Years: A Chat with Artist Julia Vogl on Social Sculpture Celebrating Place

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Turning sixty years old for any institution is a big deal, but it is particularly true for a beloved art museum. Summing up six decades of art exhibitions and the art education of literally thousands of art students over the years is a formidable task, but the Academy Art Museum has filled a year with lectures, galas, open houses, and exhibiting its permanent collection.

It also, appropriately so, has commissioned a public art project to commemorate its founding in 1958 by bringing on London-based artist Julia Vogl to lead the charge. Vogl’s social sculptures incorporate civic engagement, architectural interventions, and color.

Working with close to fifty volunteers this week, the project will focus on creating Academy-60th-themed linoleum plates to print bunting flags, which we will hang streaming in the Courtyard for the party. It will be unveiled in the Museum’s Courtyard during the Museum’s birthday party this Saturday.

The Spy sat down with Julia a few days ago to discuss the project and the importance of celebrating a sense of place.

This video is approximately two minutes in length. For more information about the Academy Art Museum and its 60th Anniversary please go here