Watching Mark Bedard as Groucho Marx's Captain Spaulding in OSF's madcap musical "Animal Crackers," it's hard to believe he wasn't a Marx Brothers fan until fairly recently.
"I saw snippets of Marx Brothers' films when I was a kid, and I remember thinking, I don't get it, and my mom would have to explain it all," Bedard says.
But now the actor channels Groucho fluidly, from his wildly expressive fake eyebrows to his exaggeratedly poor posture to his zippy wisecracks.
"Animal Crackers," directed by Allison Narver, opened in February and continues through Nov. 4 in the Angus Bowmer Theatre.
Bedard is in his sixth season with OSF. In 2009, he starred as Truffaldino in "The Servant of Two Masters," which gave OSF audiences a preview of his skill at physical comedy — and juggling.
When Bedard learned he'd play Groucho this season, he spent nearly a year researching the Marx Brothers and Groucho in particular.
"I started watching every movie I could get a hold of, listening to every radio show Groucho did, watching 'You Bet Your Life,' reading his autobiography and all the biographies about them."
Playing a comedic legend like Groucho Marx has its good and bad points. While there is a lot of information about Groucho, Bedard admits it is difficult to take on a persona that is so well known.
"Most of my research was fueled by my complete terror at the fact that I would be portraying one of the most iconic entertainers of the last century," he says. "I knew people would come in with a lot of opinions about how he sounded and how he looked and moved. All that stuff I wanted to accurately portray, but I didn't want to be thinking about it while I performed. The goal was to have that in my pocket before I even started."
Bedard says it was the biographies that really made him fall in love with the Marx Brothers.
"They were these poor kids whose mom had them performing in vaudeville like their uncle. They started out as singers, but found that the more they screwed around and acted like kids, the more the audience loved them. These guys sort of discovered by accident that they were good at comedy," Bedard says. "Learning about them and how they got started made me really understand their comedy a lot better."
OSF's production is true to the original 1928 Broadway production in which the Marx Brothers strayed frequently from writer George S. Kaufman's script in both dialogue and action, so no two performances were ever exactly alike. Bedard says he felt an obligation to not only know his lines but to be prepared to ad-lib like Groucho.
"We wanted to show the audience what it was like to be at a live Marx Brothers' show, so not only do my lines need to sound like Groucho, but anything that comes to my head in the moment also sounds like Groucho. I don't do impersonations, so I basically spent all my off season just absorbed in Marx Brothers land."
His hard work has paid off. It's often hard to tell which parts of the show are scripted and which are not. Bedard says a lot has to do with the audience. "When we have a quiet audience, we'll ad lib a little, but when the audience is really lively, that encourages us to screw around more."
Bedard says he even grew to like the movies that he disliked when he was younger. "I definitely have my favorites. After I watched 'A Night at the Opera' and 'A Day at the Races,' I said, 'Oh, I really like these.'"
Angela Decker is a freelance writer in Ashland and can be reached at email@example.com.