These guys don't miss a trick.
Arizona Theatre Company has launched a wild and crazy—and undeniably hilarious—production of Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps, an adaptation by Patrick Barlow of Hitchcock's 1935 film, which was based on John Buchan's spy novel.
Part parody, part farce, part circus and part puppet show, the production delivers nonstop, irresistible goofiness in a thoroughly polished way. It's both intelligent and silly, and for all its extremes is reasonably restrained. Only a few times—lasting mere seconds—does the shtick cross the border into OK-Enough-Already Land. But you hardly have time to consider these tiny missteps before you are strapped back into this rowdy amusement-park ride of a play.
Originating in England in 2005, the play was first produced in the United States in Boston in 2007. In the next year, it moved to Broadway, where it bounced around to several venues before it moved off-Broadway in 2010. It closed last month.
This particular production was mounted at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis a year ago. It is re-created here with the same director and actors. How much has changed since the Guthrie production isn't evident, but it appears the show has kept the same sensibility: The show wowed Twin Cities audiences, and it's hard to imagine it won't tickle the Old Pueblo's fancy as well.
Although it's in many ways a parody of the spy movies of the 1930s, it's also a celebration of the style and humor of intriguing and talented artists like Hitchcock, as well as spy novelists like Buchan. It takes those qualities and amps them up in ways that, although extreme, are respectful.
The plot is complex in its details, but is actually pretty simple. It's 1935, and bored Londoner Richard Hannay (Robert O. Berdahl) goes to the theater to find excitement—and ends up finding more than he bargained for. He meets a woman (Sarah Agnew) who entices him to take her home, confessing that she is a spy who has sensitive information that has made her the target of dangerous agents. "They will schtoop at nothing," she warns him. When the new day dawns, he wakes to find the mysterious woman lying rigidly across his lap, a knife in her back. Now a murder suspect, he resolves to prove himself innocent by tracking down the deadly spy organization—the 39 Steps—of which the woman has spoken.
His journey leaves us breathless, not only because of its danger and excitement, but also because of the brilliantly inventive comedic ways in which the story is told.
The press materials claim that there are more than 150 characters, which sounds about right—I stopped counting about 30 minutes in. There are four actors. You do the math.
The foundation of the troupe is Berdahl as Hannay. It's a brilliant tour de force for an actor who's equally competent in creating a likable character, enduring a physically frenetic marathon of antics, and executing whatever theater skills are demanded by the director's vision.
Agnew is called on to portray several characters, including lovely Pamela, who is handcuffed to Hannay for much of the chase, and ultimately becomes his ball-and-chain in their happily-ever-after.
But the bulk of the characters who tell the story is handled by two actors (Jim Lichtscheidl and Luverne Seifert), who in the program are simply identified as Clowns. The energy and skill with which these two talented players approach the dizzying array of travelers, policemen, step-dancers, innkeepers, stage performers and politicians—all within split seconds of each other—is impressive. More important, it serves the spirit of the storytelling in a most-engaging way. They will amaze you.
Yes, there is an airplane chase, a scary flock of attack birds and a shadowy appearance by Hitchcock himself—all in the funniest shadow-puppet show you're ever likely to witness. There is a chase scene atop a speeding train; wooden frames are windows through which a character attempts to escape—while holding the frame himself. There's even a herd of sheep—yes, a herd of sheep—milling about in the cutest way and blocking traffic in the Scottish countryside.
Much of the charm of this piece is the parade of blatantly opaque tricks of the theater trade—tricks that make theater a magical medium. In this show, all of the elements not only work well together, but do so quite obviously. Set, sound and costumes, as well as an outstandingly poised ensemble, are stitched together by director Joel Sass to showcase the collaborative skills that create good theater.
It's refreshing to rediscover the simple, low-tech delights of theater magic done well. Movie chase scenes, explosions and a whole new dimension to the art of animation certainly have their appeal and wow factor, but theater was the original 3-D storytelling medium, and this 39 Steps reignites our appreciation of this millennia-old art form.
If you can think of a trick these guys missed, please let me know.