The Chicagoist will be launching later but in the meantime please enjoy our archives.

Harpo Marx, The Girl

By Suzy Evans in Arts & Entertainment on Sep 15, 2009 5:40PM

2009_09_Molly_Brennan.jpg Molly Brennan wants everyone to stop being mad. She's playing Harpo Marx/The Professer in the Goodman Theatre's much-anticipated production of the Marx Brothers musical Animal Crackers, and despite what you may have heard, she has no gender-bending agenda. However, even Brennan was a bit skeptical at first. "The Goodman? A girl playing Harpo?" she says, remembering her initial reaction to the theater's proposition. "It never occured to me that they would think of that." And when she was actually cast, even after missing the first audition, she still couldn't believe it. "Really? Really? You want me?...It felt very much like a gift."

But will her move to the "big time" cramp her style? Audiences know Brennan as the quintessential independent theater actress with her chameleon-esque hair, usually purple for her status as a company member with 500 Clown, and her numerous and colorful tattoos. Although her appearance won't change, she finally joined the Actor's Equity Association for this show, which might affect her future work. (Except for 500 Clown, which Equity does not consider "real" theater.) But Brennan insists she hasn't lost her edge, and she's still devising the same type of art, just with more resources. "It's very comfortable and very familiar to me," she says of her work at the Goodman. "The difference is: I'm like, 'Gosh, you know it'd be really great if I had a plastic fish' and the stage manager assistant has put it in my hand...They just have everything."

Brennan caught the theater bug at a young age. Her mother is an actor and director, and making theater was always a part of her life growing up. She used to put on performances with her sisters and cousins in an empty barn, where her mom had hung two sheets to make a stage and provided a box of costumes.

Jonathan Brody (Emanuel Ravelli/Chico), Stanley Wayne Mathis (Hives/Roscoe W. Chandler) and Molly Brennan (The Professor/Harpo) in rehearsal for Animal Crackers. Photo by Eric Y. Exit.
Her first role was a monkey in her kindergarten play, for which she performed her first physical stunt - standing on a bench to get in a tree. In high school, she did musical theater, but in college, she was discouraged from singing (a ridiculous suggestion considering her powerful vocals) so she moved on to Shakespeare. After college, she moved to Chicago for grad school at DePaul but left after a quarter. "I felt like I had a lot to say and I didn't want to be in school anymore." And while she was also told that in order to be an actress, she needed to have long natural hair (and probably no tattoos), Brennan went in a different direction. "Me as who I want to be is the most marketable product," she says. "Not me trying to get cast but me living my life, being the artist that I am."

However, underneath her combat boots and tattooed skin, Brennan is really a "big, old domestic." In her spare time, she enjoys baking, sewing, cycling, reading comic books and playing with her dog. She even has her own fashion line "Risk Wear," which serves as the merchandise for 500 Clown. She creates every piece from recycled fabrics and uses a devising process similar to how she makes theater - she improvises with the material, not knowing what the end result will be. "It's all part of the same way of living," she says, referring to 500 Clown's motto "Life is Worth the Risk."

And she'll continue her risk-taking ways by convincing skeptical audiences that she can play Harpo when Animal Crackers begins previews this weekend. "It's a huge honor and one of those roles of a lifetime," she says. "I really hope I don't blow it."

Animal Crackers begins previews at the Goodman Theatre this Friday (September 18) and runs through October 25.