Goodman Uses Nontraditional Casting in Animal Crackers | Bleader

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Goodman Uses Nontraditional Casting in Animal Crackers

Posted By on 10.07.09 at 11:40 AM

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In my review of the Goodman Theatre's revival of the 1928 Marx Brothers musical Animal Crackers, I referred to the fact that the silent Marx brother, Harpo, is played by Molly Brennan. That prompted one reader (Reader film critic J.R. Jones) to comment, "Having a woman play Harpo Marx is like having Bill O'Reilly play Louis Armstrong." Actually, I would LOVE to see Bill O'Reilly play Louis Armstrong, as long as the sound was dubbed. But the comment raises a point: Intentionally or otherwise, color- and gender-blind casting helped the Goodman and director-adapter Henry Wishcamper avoid the pitfalls of political incorrectness.

For instance, a key plot twist in Animal Crackers involves the revelation that rich, blustery good ol' boy Roscoe W. Chandler is really a Jewish fish peddler from Czechoslovakia named Abie. Later, it comes out that Abie/Roscoe secretly owns a major New York newspaper. This creaky joke about Jews assimilating into high society and controlling the media is unabashedly racist. But the Goodman has turned it on its head by putting Stanley Wayne Mathis, an African-American, in the role of Chandler. Having a black guy play a Jewish guy who's passing as a goy serves as a clever distancing device. (Never mind the further complexities involved in the fact that Animal Crackers was written by four Jews—book: George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, score: Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby—and originally produced by a fifth—Sam H. Harris—as a vehicle for a Jewish comedy team . . . or that the Goodman production opened over Yom Kippur.)

Similarly, by casting a woman as Harpo, Wishcamper undercuts the question of sexual harassment that could arise if a man played him, since Harpo spends much of the play chasing after and jumping on women. A Goodman spokesman told me they simply cast Brennan because she was "the best person for the role." Maybe so. But I think many audience members would've been a little put off to see a male actor manhandle women the way Harpo does.

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