Madness and mayhem reign onstage in The Goodman Theatre’s current revival of Animal Crackers, based on the 1928 Broadway musical by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind that starred the Marx Brothers. Made into the popular 1930s film, Animal Crackers has a zany plot line in which Groucho Marx plays the role of African explorer Captain Geoffrey T. Spaulding, who investigates the theft of a valuable painting gone missing during a weekend house party at the Long Island estate of society matron Mrs. Rittenhouse.
Set designer Robin Vest, costume designer Jenny Mannis, lighting designer Matthew Richards, and sound designer Richard Woodbury set the scene circa 1929, with a look at high society right before the Great Depression. “This is essentially a revue of dance numbers and songs with a cockamamie plot. In this version, there are nine actors that play more than 20 roles,” says Vest, who looked to a frilly, French version of Art Deco design as her inspiration, as well as the Ziegfeld Follies and Busby Berkeley. “The details are more painted and less dimensional,” she says. “There is fun, colorful energy in an elegant, unit set in wing-and-drop style that leaves plenty of room for lighting positions.”
Since there is a lot of physical comedy involved, Vest added some playground elements to the set, such as a ladder, weight-bearing curtains, and a staircase with two built-in slides that are used in one of the dance numbers. Upstage, two 28'-tall rectangular windows with curved tops evoke the forced perspective of the curved room, where two-dimensional chandeliers made of metal and crystals twinkle when hit with light. Additional sparkle on the set comes from electrics built into the stair rail and portal.
“At one point, the window treatments fly out, leaving the windows as portals into another world, where the dancers are in cloud costumes for a Busby Berkeley-like number,” says Vest. Primarily, the characters wear 1929 evening wear, but following a dream sequence, they find themselves whisked back to 18th-century France, where the set and costumes follow suit. “The French set is a big painted garden in the style of Versailles with topiary on stage,” notes Vest. In the dream sequence, the Harpo Marx character plays a harp, which tracks on stage. A figure of a lady on the harp comes to life. “They dance a pas de deux, and her costume has strings so that Harpo can play her,” Vest adds.
All of the sets and props were built in the Goodman shops. “They built a full-scale prototype of everything so we could get feedback,” says Vest. “That was very useful.” Her color palette for the set is fairly monochromatic but pretty, or what she refers to as “controlled,” with “silver, black, gray, and accents of teal in the French Art Deco style. The masking is pale, pale pink. Punches of color come with the set pieces.”
The set basically serves the physicality and zaniness of the show. As Vest describes it, "We started out with the idea of the Marx Brothers traipsing through a flower garden as they invade a weekend in the Hamptons."