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Frank Ferrante brings his Groucho Marx to Bainbridge
Standing among the most recognizable figures of the 20th century, alongside Elvis Presley, Albert Einstein and Marilyn Monroe, you will find a short rude man from Manhattan wearing round glasses and a thick greasepaint mustache.
He would most likely be chomping a cigar.
He would definitely not be impressed by the lineup.
By the time of his death in 1977, Julius Henry “Groucho” Marx had left a legacy in American popular culture that is, arguably, unmatched to this day. Throughout the course of his life he, with the rest of the Marx Brothers, would conquer the mediums of stage, radio, film, music and television. Giants of entertainment including Johnny Carson, Jerry Seinfeld, Woody Allen and Bill Cosby have all named him as one of their major influences. His legendary insults and innuendos are as repeated and imitated today as they ever were.
“Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.”
“I never forget a face, but in your case I’ll be glad to make an exception.”
“I was married by a judge. I should have asked for a jury.”
The man surely left some rather large shoes to fill, but lucky for theatre fans around the world, Frank Ferrante has the right-sized feet.
For anyone who never got the chance to truly experience the legendary comedian, a second chance has come along. Ferrante — an award-winning actor, director and playwright — is bringing his own recreation of the Groucho persona to Bainbridge Performing Arts for a very special one-time-only show at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 18.
“It’s been a lifetime study,” Ferrante said of his playing the character of Groucho.
“I’ve loved him from the time that I was a child,” he said. “I read all the magazines, books and letters. It just became more and more intense as I pursued a professional career in theatre.”
Ferrante, who was described by the New York Times as “the greatest living interpreter of Groucho Marx’s material,” was first discovered by Groucho’s own son, Arthur Marx. Ferrante originated the off-Broadway title role in “Groucho: A Life in Revue” (written by Arthur Marx), portraying the famed comedian from age 15 to 85. He also starred in, directed and produced the national PBS television program “Groucho: A Life in Revue.”
He has now condensed some of the best of his renowned Groucho material, as well as some new quips, into the manically hilarious 90-minute performance “An Afternoon With Groucho.”
“It’s forever daunting because of the responsibility,” Ferrante said of the pressure that accompanies assuming the notorious persona. “I respect his legacy and his contributions so much. I always see it as an undertaking that has merit and value because I get to share him with audiences that might not know him.”
Far from a simple impersonation, Ferrante considers his portrayal of Groucho to be more of a recreation of the man’s stage personality and an homage to his comedic style.
“I’m not crazy about so-called tribute shows,” Ferrante said, adding that his performances take quite a different approach.
“You want to become that entity. That’s what I try to do, convey the essence of that person or that performer. My job is to hold the audience. I’m basically doing a period piece.”
Historical as it may be — the last Marx Brothers film premiered in 1959 — the content and delivery of the team’s material has lost none of its relevance. Each new generation seems to rediscover the Marx Brothers, especially Groucho.
“They keep coming back,” Ferrante said. “That’s been proven with the Marx Brothers.”
What exactly is it about the group that continues to appeal to new audiences?
“They’re exhilarating,” Ferrante said. “And that’s what appealed to me as a child. It’s the loudness of it, the freedom of the humor. There’s a childlike, adolescent quality to the Marx Brothers. There’s no filter, there’s no editing to them. They play by their own rules; they’re the outsiders looking in.”
Having spent so much time assuming the personality of Groucho, researching the man’s life and having worked so closely with the comedian’s children, Ferrante said he feels as if he can begin to understand and relate to the great comedian.
“He is a complex figure,” he said. “My impression is that he did the best he could possibly do in his lifetime as a human, a person and a brilliant creative talent. I see him as someone who’s an intellectual.”
Of course, the look is half of the act. Even those only vaguely familiar with the Marx Brothers actual material could still pick Groucho out of a lineup any day, a fact that Ferrante is all too aware of.
“It’s the face of comedy in the United States, that look,” Ferrante said. “I couldn’t do it [the show] if the persona was not so clearly constructed. The trappings are stunning, but it’s really the way he thinks. The point is to share this style of comedy with the audience, this brash American style.
“He spoke his mind, and that’s part of what’s so appealing about Groucho,” he said.
In today’s world of extremist entertainment, where everything is so loud and scandalous all the time, the material of the Marx Brothers remains popular in no small part because it is so different.
Groucho managed to mock authority in every form — government, education, police, aristocracy - and he did so with quick wit and cheeky expressions. He was always the smartest man in the room, and no institution was safe from his derision. While we will never know how much of the Groucho persona was an act — he was reportedly a rather sad person in his private life — assuming the role is a true labor of love for Ferrante.
“On some level I feel depleted,” he said of the end of the show. “I like to leave the show feeling as if I’ve given everything. It’s cathartic.”
And which movie does the theatre’s most devoted Marx Brothers fan favor? When asked to pick a favorite, Ferrante replies with a verbal quickness reminiscent of Groucho himself.
“’Duck Soup,’” Ferrante said instantly. “I’ve seen it dozens of times. It’s 68 minutes of sheer hilarity.”
“An Afternoon With Groucho” comes to Bainbridge Performing Arts at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 18. Tickets are on sale and available at www.bainbridgeperformingarts.org, by phone at 206-842-8569 or in person at BPA (200 Madison Ave. N). The cost is $20.