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Features

Marx mayhem returns to Engle Lane

‘A Night in the Ukraine’ opens season with music, comedy

One of the lead male characters in the next Community Players of Streator production is played by a woman, while a prominent female role has been filled by a man.

But if the musical comedy in question involves characters inspired by the Marx Brothers, just about anything goes.

“I was intimidated when this started (but) I’ve taken the same approach to every show I’ve directed. If you put the right people in the right roles, the show will take care of itself,” said Angie McKenzie, a Streator resident who is directing “A Night in the Ukraine,” the play that will open the Community Players of Streator (also known as Engle Lane) season this weekend.

Engle Lane’s previous Marx Brothers-based shows — “The Cocoanuts” (2015) and “Animal Crackers” (2017) — were based on movies starring the four siblings who were huge movie stars from the 1920s through the 1940s.

“A Night in the Ukraine” is something different. Opening on Broadway in 1980, it’s a comedy based on the Marx Brothers’ style featuring characters based on Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo Marx.

Since all the brothers had died by the end of 1979, new Broadway actors filled the Marx parts, and three of the four “siblings” in this Engle Lane production are new to their parts.

Streator’s Dan McKenzie, who directed “The Cocoanuts” and “Animal Crackers,” is stepping into the Groucho role for “Ukraine.”

“It was a role I had to win. A dream role? No. Is it an adventure? You bet,” said the Streator resident, who is married to Angie McKenzie.

Alex Guerrero, of Peru, is playing Engle Lane’s Chico role for the third time. Ottawa’s Griffin Tabor will fill the Zeppo part, and Michele Piel, of Streator, will act the part fashioned for Harpo.

Harpo Marx always played a mute character, which is why Piel was interested in the role.

“I’m a singer, and I thought it would be interesting to be in a show where I couldn’t sing at all,” she said.

Angie McKenzie noted the original “Ukraine” production on Broadway had a woman play Harpo. A famous “I Love Lucy” episode had Lucille Ball playing Harpo alongside the real life Harpo Marx.

“I love Lucille Ball as Harpo. Melanie is a different twist on Harpo of the past. She has a very expressive face. She can convey different aspects of scenes with her face,” Angie McKenzie said.

Two years ago, Michael Helton, of Ottawa, played the Zeppo character in “Animal Crackers.” After the play ended, he began growing a beard, which lasted until May 11.

Helton had to shave the beard because he earned the part of Mrs. Pavlenko, the type of wealthy widow role filled by Margaret Dumont in Marx Brothers films.

“I tried out for any role. I just wanted to be in the play,” said Helton, who has never played a woman. When McKenzie wanted him to read for the Mrs. Pavlenko part, he gave it a go.

“I said ‘what the hell?’ and gave it my all. I didn’t have much time to think about it. I tried to have as much fun as I could during the rehearsal,” Helton said.

As far as Angie McKenzie is concerned, awarding the Pavlenko part of Helton was a matter of equality.

“When I decided to open up Harpo to females, I decided to open up Mrs. Pavlenko to males. Let’s face it, men in drag are funny. Mike Helton truly is what I was looking for,” she said.

“Ukraine” takes place in 1898 at Mrs. Pavlenko’s estate, and is loosely based on “The Bear,” a play written by Anton Chekhov. The Broadway production included the musical revue “A Day in Hollywood” before “A Night In Ukraine.”

“We chose only to do ‘Ukraine’ because there’s a lot of music involved in ‘A Day In Hollywood.’ I like my comedy to have less music,” McKenzie said.

Additional cast members include Kelly Lefler, Emma Reel and Marlee Reel, all of Long Point; Cora Schultz, Streator; and Alyssa Guerrero, Peru, who is married to Alex Guerrero.

“Ukraine” contains classic Marx Brothers elements — Chico and Harpo as madcap partners, Groucho after the money of the rich widow, and a cheesy romance involving Zeppo. And there are songs and musical numbers.

A lifelong Marx Brothers fan, Dan McKenzie said “Ukraine” will satisfy fans of the comedy quartet.

“You have to do right by the characters. We are going to make sure there are surprises for hardcore Marx Brothers fans,” he said. “It’s really a funny script. The writers hit all the key notes for a Marx Brothers show. And all the songs are good.”

Go Info

What: “A Night in the Ukraine,” a Community Players of Streator comedy-drama,

When: 2 p.m. Sunday, May 19; 7:30 p.m. Monday, May 20, through Saturday, May 25

Where: William C. Schiffbauer Center for the Performing Arts at Engle Lane, 1012 Columbus Road, Streator.

How: Ticket information is available by calling 815-672-3584 or at englelane.org.

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