“I love making people laugh,” says Frank Ferrante.
Fortunately for the 50-year-old actor and self-described clown, he’s rather good at that, combining a scalpel-sharp wit with a surgeon’s sense of when to use it.
Ferrante is presenting an updated version of his long-running one-man show, An Evening with Groucho (June 13-30) at ACT Theatre’s Bullitt Cabaret. Directed by his frequent collaborator, Dreya Weber, this version of the show leaves out some old material and adds some new Marx Brothers’ memories, while retaining the audience interaction that is a staple of any Ferrante performance.
“I’m going back to the books with it,” Ferrante says. “That’s Dreya’s doing.”
Also new for this show is local musician Mark Rabe. He takes over —on piano — for Jim Furmston, who appeared with Ferrante in a version of the show at ACT last year.
Ferrante discovered the legendary Groucho as a boy growing up in California. “What the Marx Brothers were doing was intoxicating,” he recalls. “I was exhilarated by their behavior. The physicality was wonderful. It left a real impression on me." The brothers' irreverence was a welcome antidote to the button-down world of parochial school.
Ferranto attended several Catholic schools, including La Salle High School in Pasadena. He ended up in drama school at the University of Southern California. A professor there suggested he put together a show for his senior project. That was the beginning of Ferrante’s now 27-year run as Groucho Marx.
Ferrante invited everyone who’d ever known Groucho to see the show, including Groucho's son, the late Arthur Marx, a noted writer himself. Arthur Marx called Ferrante's house, where Ferrante's roommate, now an agent, convinced Marx to attend.
Arthur Marx had written his own Groucho show (Groucho: A Life in Revue), and asked Ferrante to be in it. Ferrante was soon doing Groucho at dinner theater in Kansas City, followed by more than 250 performances off-Broadway and six months in London. He was 23.
“It was a heady experience,” he recalls. After that, “I had to work backwards. I had to learn how to audition.”
Ferrante has since confined his Groucho performances to a season, 30-35 one-nighters from February to June, which allows him to be home with his children during the week. For parts of the rest of the year, Ferrante becomes Groucho’s relentless stepchild, The Caesar (ding!), frequent ringleader of Teatro Zinzanni productions in Seattle and San Francisco. The Caesar, who returns to Teatro’s Seattle tent this fall, owes a lot to Groucho.
“My fantasy was to come up with my own persona,” Ferrante says. “I wanted him to be a fully fleshed-out clown the way Groucho is.” In true Groucho fashion, The Caesar works the crowd like a puppetmaster, gently skewering the denizens and details of postmodern life.
“Groucho says things that we want to say,” explains Ferrante. So does The Caesar. “They’re both wisecrackers. There’s a dangerous component. You don’t know what they’re going to say next.”
The speed and apparent spontaneity of Ferrante’s work in both shows is studiously practiced. “Every comedian has a mental Rolodex of jokes,” Ferrante says. “I’m always adding to that file.” The art is in the delivery, and in knowing which joke to use when. For that, says Ferrante, he turned to his idol. “Groucho made written material seem improvised,” he says.
Ferrante’s ribbing of audience members never comes across as a full-on barbecue. “There’s a lot in play when there’s an audience in front of you,” he says. “They’re part of the show. They’re my co-stars in the show.” And he respects their role. “People pay a lot of money, and I want them to have a good time.”
Ferrante, Teatro and The Caesar had a successful four month run in Amsterdam, where, despite English being a second language, “they got it.” He’d like to continue creating new characters, such as the gangster of love, a sort of film noir villain, more interested in stealing hearts than money, who invaded his most recent Seattle Teatro run.
The key to success, and what he’s learned from nearly 30 years of performing, is being “in the moment," says Ferrante. "Staying in it, in the moment of improvisation, and creating new moments.”
In this moment, for Frank Ferrante, things are good.
“What drives me is I really believe in what I’m doing,” he says. “I love that my kids can see that I’m doing what I love."
Performing, as Groucho, The Caesar, the gangster of love or other characters yet to be discovered, has "been a part of my life for 40 years,” he says. “Quite honestly, it’s fun.”