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9/25/2022     THE 39 STEPS                 Merely Players Presents



pgm 39 Steps 2.jpg

Night. London. Fog. Danger. Richard Hannay goes to the theatre, meets a mysterious femme fatale who is soon fatale'd in his flat, and is embarked on an adventure featuring spies, violence, trains, and Scotsmen. Scotland Yard think he's a murderer. And the clock is ticking.

Those of you versed in the works of Alfred Hitchcock will recognize the set-up of his classic 1935 thriller, The 39 Steps, based in turn on John Buchan's 1915 novel. But, Hitchcock fans will have to reign in their outrage, as Patrick Barlow's 2006 stage adaptation places tongue firmly in music-hall cheek, and creates a giddily entertaining biggest-ham-takes-all romp, asking four actors to play all fourteen-gazillion roles with just a few scraps of scenery and costumes, and a whole lot of chutzpah and energy.

This show, in a nutshell, is one of the most entertaining works you're likely to see in this or any other year. Keeping the bare bones of the Buchan/Hitchcock story (innocent man accused of murder must crack a nasty spy ring to save his name and the girl), this production (like several before reviewed with these very same words) dishes out whirlwind character change, wry backstage buffoonery, dizzying word-play, mega-charm and tons of stage fog. To calm down the Hitchcockophiles, passing references to his other films are tossed out liberally.  Most of the references are underscored with a nudge-nudge wink-wink to the audience, but a few are just casually dropped as visual (or musical) jokes or fleeting references.

It's been said that Buchan's Richard Hannay novels (there were five as well as a few stories and cameos by the character in other works) provided the template for the modern spy novel, and writers from Ian Fleming to Robert Ludlum have freely acknowledged the debt. So, of course, it's appropriate that this play  takes every opportunity to skewer the clichés that come with the genre, including frequent references to the hero's rakish good looks (especially his attractive pencil moustache), shady characters with outrageously thick accents, villains with deformities and maniacal laughs, and even the old standby, a conveniently placed hymnal stopping a bullet ("Some of those hymns are very hard to get through").

As with the several prior productions of this play I’ve seen, a major appeal is the breath-takingly fast and numerous character switches by the two-man protean ensemble, Andre Eaton and David Galloway. In one sequence, the two of them play six characters in a single scene, switching characters with a flip of a hat, a slump of a shoulder, a shift of a dialect. (Part of the joke is they are allowed to miss, to put on the wrong hat or the wrong accent at the wrong time.)

Centering it all is Jackson Trent’s single performance as Richard Hannay. On stage for almost the entire play, he has the unenviable task of carrying the plot, refereeing the ensemble, setting the bar for "how over-the-top can we take this?" and making us care enough that we want to know how his story turns out. The fourth member of the troupe, Jessie Kuipers, has the relatively relaxed job of portraying only three women, the femme fatale at the top, the love interest, and a comely and helpful Scottish farmwife. All are excellent and engaging, with nary a wrong note or muddle accent or questionable choice.  (Two stagehands – actually ASM's Micah Trammel and Tim Scruggs -- frequently appear and find themselves enmeshed in the story, despite their best efforts to just set the stage and move on.)

Joanie McElroy’s direction is full of backstage jokes, affection for the Music Hall tradition that is the stylistic forbearer of this piece, and attention to detail and pace. If anything "misses," it's the occasional scene change that lingers a little too longly.   All the changes are “part of the show,” in full view (fool view?) with the occasional ghost-light gag or physical flourish reminding us that we are watching actors moving furniture.  I especially liked the image of Ms. Kuipers moving a table with a knife still in her back, and the stagehand who was too short to correctly hang a scene-setting sign.    Even with these rapturously silly moments, I couldn’t help wishing the changes were simpler, shorter.  Still, it's a minor quibble in what is still a hugely entertaining (and fast-paced) comedy.

After I saw the touring company, I predicted that this would be a mainstay of regional and community theatres for years to come (small cast, inexpensive to mount, and entertaining as a puppy with a squirrel doll), and, I suspect, it'll be one of those "This never grows old" pieces we all know and love.  I'm happy to report that there have been numerous stagings since that tour, and that the production left me with a goofy grin on my face from beginning to end.

So what exactly are "The 39 Steps?" If I tell you, I'll have to shoot you. 39 times! Wearing 39 different costumes!  (Cue Bernard Herrmann-esque ominous chords.)

    --  Brad Rudy  (    #MerelyPlayersPresents    #The39Steps)

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