by T.M. Sell
Frank Ferrante was afraid.
Every actor with a pulse is a little afraid before going on stage, but it’s a kind of fear and excitement and adrenaline that most use to drive their performances. Because once the lights come up, the game is on the line.
But this was more than usual for an actor who has been doing this particular show for 30 years, a recreation of Groucho Marx so spot on that surviving family members and friends of the late comedic genius had long since given it their blessing. The show and the actor had both won awards. It should have been a done deal.
And yet, Ferrante recalled some months later, “I was literally starting to tremble.”
Fear was part of what originally attracted Ferrante to Marx’s work, and led him to create what is now called An Evening with Groucho, a one-man (plus piano accompaniment) show encompassing Marx’s life and career.
“He’s been armor for many of us,” Ferrante said in Seattle this week, getting ready for his Aug. 7-24 run at ACT Theatre in Seattle. “He was the spokesman for a lot of us.”
Laughter can be a defense for the small, the unpopular, the challenged – for anybody. In Ferrante’s case, it was the uncertain environment of parochial school that made the Marx Brothers such a welcome escape.
His interest in Marxism eventually led to a college senior project, a performance witnessed by the late Arthur Marx, Groucho’s son and an accomplished writer in his own right. The younger Marx tabbed Ferrante to star in his play about his father, which went on to long, successful runs in New York and London.
But Australia was virgin territory. Groucho had never been to Australia; Ferrante said he had no idea what people might know of the great man and his work.
“It seems such an American piece and it evolved in the states,” he said.
“The reality of doing it in another country hit me as we approached the venue,” Ferrante said. “What if this audience doesn’t get what I am doing?”
And if it didn’t work, it was going to be a very long four weeks in Australia, and far too late to back out of the outback.
Nonetheless, Ferrante stepped on the stage in Byron Bay, New South Wales, Australia, and did what any actor worth a good cigar would do: He soldiered ahead, because the show must go on.
“I thought, ‘Just breathe, and do what you do.’”
And then he was reminded about what makes a show like this work: People the world over like to laugh.
“The laughs were happening and they were effusive and in the same places as in the states,” he said.
In the end, “I got a standing ovation,” Ferrante said. “That was affirming. I thought, ‘I can do this now.’”
Over time, Ferrante learned that some things had to be explained. Groucho’s television quiz show, You Bet Your Life, never aired down under, and a joke that involves the “secret word” from that show got a much bigger laugh when Ferrante explained it to the audience beforehand.
Ferrante ended up doing 12 cities in four weeks, and the producers are working on a return to the West End in London.
Despite 30 years of being Groucho multiple evenings a year, Ferrante said he doesn’t tire of the experience.
Part of that is because unlike any number of vintage comedians, Groucho remains funny.
“Groucho has a point of view,” Ferrante said. “He’s still surprising, the way he can twist something around, the way he can take down your defenses. You never knew what he was going to say.”
Ferrante has become a master of spontaneity, one of Groucho’s hallmarks.
“Part of Groucho’s genius was you never knew how much was improv and how much was script,” Ferrante said, a touch that requires, ironically, a lot of preparation.
“It’s a bit of an illusion,” he said, making a well-practiced joke sound as though it has been crafted on the spot.
Ferrante’s Groucho consequently frequently breaks the fourth wall, as actors say, wading verbally and physically into the audience to drag and coax the unsuspecting into the act. As with Groucho in both film and TV, anyone can be a foil at any time, and usually in a way that is neither mean-spirited nor obvious.
Ferrante said he is also delighted with the show’s appeal to multiple age groups, from older folks familiar with Groucho, to younger ones who might have never even seen a Marx brothers film.
“I don’t know how many shows can appeal to multiple generations and still have an edge,” Ferrante said. “And Groucho has an edge.”
Unlike his characters – Groucho, the Caesar, the Gangster of Love – Ferrante himself is decidedly not edgy. His eyes sparkle with the passion he displays for his work, but he’s otherwise disarmingly warm when he personally thanks anyone and everyone who shows up to see his work.
Ferrante’s three-decade run as Groucho got a plasma injection a couple of years ago from his longtime friend and collaborator Dreya Weber, who, like Ferrante, is a regular fixture at Seattle’s Teatro Zinzanni.
“Dreya has helped me a lot,” Ferrante said.
As director, Weber has pushed Ferrante to move beyond mere impression to a broader exploration of Marx the man, making the show slightly more touching without sacrificing much in the way of laughs.
“When I first saw the show I felt like there were opportunities for Frank to show more of his range as an actor,” Weber said. “And I felt like it needed more shadow.”
And so we learn that Marx was brilliant and intellectual despite a lack of formal education, and a man who cared deeply for his brothers and fellow performers. And one who didn’t suffer fools.
“He’s a man of great dimension and complexity,” Ferrante said of Marx.
“We lift the curtain a little bit,” Weber said.
“She may have been the only person who could have improved the show,” Ferrante said of Weber. “She’s the only person I know who’s smart enough. I trust her.”
Consequently, Groucho, via Ferrante, still gets laughs.
“I get to extend his presence a bit,” Ferrante said. “I get to interpret it. He was an original.”
Ferrante recently got to meet Hal Holbrook, still doing his one-man Mark Twain show after 60 years.
“I’d like to do this for another 30 years,” Ferrante said. “It’s been a constant in my life. It’s familiar territory.
“I keep doing it because I like to hear people laugh.”
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