Saturday, October 27, 2012
Review: The 39 Steps by Theatre Arlington is quick-witted and fun
You'll laugh, chortle, guffaw, clap, and whistle so many times, you might embarrass yourself.
I love nothing more than discovering the secretive “insider” facts surrounding a mystery or spy story, and it seems there are plenty of them surrounding the novel The 39 Steps and its subsequent films and plays.
This story, first written by Scottish author John Buchan in 1915 as a serial in Blackwood’s Magazine, was then published in novel form later that year. He called this, his first novel, a “shocker” as the reader is only just able to believe that the events in the story really happened. There have been many speculations as to the meaning of the title, some more far-fetched than others, and each of the film versions had a different interpretation. The truth is that the title came by way of Buchan’s daughter who was visiting him as he recuperated from an illness at a private nursing home. A wooden staircase led down to the beach and she, just learning to count, announced that there were 39 steps.
The 39 Steps is the first of five novels featuring Richard Hannay, the action hero who continuously finds himself getting into and then miraculously out of sticky situations. At least four films were made based on the novel, the most famous being Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 The 39 Steps. Being extremely popular, it was also adapted for television, theater, and radio plays. Orson Welles starred in a 1939 version for his own radio station and show, The Mercury Theatre on the Air.
Of literary interest is that The 39 Steps is one of the first examples of the “man-on-the-run” scenario that was later adopted by filmmakers as an often-used plot device. Richard Hannay was held as an example of an ordinary man who puts his country’s interests before his own safety. Remembering the visual horrors of the current play and film, War Horse, it is easy to understand how the story was a huge success for the men in the WWI trenches who “greatly appreciated reading it in the (depressing) midst of mud and rain and shells”.
With such popularity in its home country of the United Kingdom, you’d think a theatrical version would have come soon after the novel’s publication. There was a concept play based on Hitchcock’s film that was written in 1997 by English playwrights Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon and had two people play all the roles. But it wasn’t until 2005 that a comic theatrical adaptation of that original concept was written by Patrick Barlow and performed in West Yorkshire, England. By 2006, it moved to London and the Criterion Theatre where it has been running ever since, becoming the longest running comedy in the West End. It won the Olivier Award for Best New Comedy in 2007 and traversed over the pond for its Broadway premiere in 2008. Garnering six Tony Awards nominations, the play won two for Best Lighting and Best Sound Design, finally closing Off-Broadway in early 2010. The 39 Steps is a staple of many regional and community theatres and is so popular as to have its own website, www.love39steps.com.
Instead of being a “play within a play,” The 39 Steps calls for the entirety of the 1935 adventure film to be performed onstage with a cast of only four. One actor plays the hero and the other three all the other characters in the film/play. Much like The Mystery of Irma Vep or Greater Tuna, both seen recently in the area, this play requires quick changes and playing multiple characters at the same time. Thus, the seriousness of the film’s spy story is now played mainly for laughs, the script constantly alluding to other Hitchcock films such as Rear Window, Psycho, and North by Northwest.
It is this same comedic film send up that Theatre Arlington is presenting for the next two weekends. This theatre seems to have both the perfect space and the perfect audiences to perform fast-paced murder mysteries or spy thrillers, having done several hit productions of this type in past seasons. And Director Andy Baldwin is the master apparent of this genre, having also directed last year’s “who-dun-it” murder mystery thriller, Corpse. His attention to detail is unsurpassed, and his interpretation of The 39 Steps is no different.
Never have I seen a play that addressed every single bit of the play with military precision. Each entrance and exit, every movement by the actors, all the lighting and sound cues, were directed and rehearsed like choreography. When you are recreating a film that, in true Hitchcock fashion, is already campy with over-the-top situations, careful consideration of every detail is of the utmost importance; otherwise the innuendos and puns fall flat and the entire piece crumbles into a series of oddly acted moments. And it’s not only the actors who need to be precise. The lighting and sound cues must be “on the mark” accurate to make the fast-paced scenes work; in some cases, they are almost characters themselves. It is with great pleasure that I can heartily announce that this play of spoofs is a near masterpiece due to the talents of the director and the four actors.
But first, the designers: Theatre Arlington has a wonderfully old-fashioned proscenium stage with bright red velvet curtain. The addition of large bronze footlights enhanced the feeling of a musical revue stage, used in several scenes. They were also the only stationary set pieces designed by Bob Lavallee. Windows, door, armchair, and cubes used as different objects were on rollers and moved quickly in and out of each scene, again with deft and choreographed precision. Shelbie Mac’s delightful cartoon-like black and white scenic drawings were shown on the background screen with the assistance of Jordana Abrenica’s projection design. That same screen was also used to shadow some of the “hundreds” of characters and the rolling of the play’s title and opening credits, emulating the sense of the film.
Lighting angles were sharp and menacing and Max Marquez had the task of differentiating between the bright lights of the musical revue, a sitting room, train compartment, the moors, and so many others places, as well as the light from the screen, and each cue seemed appropriate and set the mood effectively. Taking that mood to a higher level was both the scene transition music and sound effects of Andrea Allmond’s design. Portions of Bernard Herrmann’s scores from Hitchcock’s films transported the play into just the right blend of British upper class elegance and heart-racing suspense thriller.
Full costume ensembles as well as the quick-change character pieces all magically came together in Ric Dreumont Leal’s expert hands. Men’s suits were period piece baggy and pin-striped and the women character’s dresses draped their figures tightly with the perfect, slightly below the knee hem length. The variety show performers wore tuxedos with old-fashioned starched collars and false shirt fronts, the kind that always flip up in comedy bits. Wigs abound, both great ones and ones never meant to be pretty. Whether explored in rehearsal and then used, or by design, there were genius moments where a costume piece instantly became another object, such as a fedora morphed into a steering wheel. Several costume changes were made onstage, where exchanging costumes also meant exchanging characters, and each of them was staged to seem perfectly logical and appropriate.
And now back to the actors: We’ve all seen spoofy, comedic mysteries with the stereotypical murder, finding of the body, detective entrance, the subsequent questioning of guests or other characters and the final revelation scene. The 39 Steps is different, very different. Yes, someone is murdered, someone is accused, there is a hunt and the murderer is revealed at the end. But it’s all the stuff in between that, surely from the script and definitely from this production, was so extraordinary. Each piece of blocking, each movement and gesture was used for maximum hilarity.
Each of the actors’ roles was fully-developed even if they were a character for the briefest of moments. The dialects were thankfully accurate, including German and the always difficult Scottish burr. But what made me practically giddy was watching actors who truly understood that to do comedy correctly you have to play it straight. That’s not to say they didn’t know what was funny and heightened those moments, but they played the laughs by way of the character’s personality. And these actors knew about timing -- the subtle beat before or after a line, the small gesture, the finesse of slapstick. All of it was sublime in the making and the observing, and I often felt I was a student watching masters at their craft.
I know actors dislike it when they are lumped together as an ensemble that “cannot be picked out separately.” Well sorry, but here it is so accurate. Ben Bryant, Eric Dobbins, Lynsey Hale, and Shane Strawbridge performed at the height of their comedic talent. None faltered or were less than, and it was obvious they delighted in their characterizations and in helping each other perform their best.
Bryant, as suspected murderer on the run Richard Hannay, was Britain’s Everyman, all serious with stiff upper lip. Though his antics were outrageous, Bryant played them sincerely, and his was the role in which the many others revolved. Hale had the arduous task of playing the murdered spy, Annabella Schmidt, and then the flirtatious farmer’s wife Margaret and leading lady Pamela. At first glance, you’d never guess that Hale would be such an accomplished physical comedian. She had a contortionist’s agility and her scene with Bryant at the fence had all the marks of a classic comedy bit.
Speaking of agility and classic comedy, Dobbins and Strawbridge kept reminding me of the comedy duo Laurel and Hardy. Performing all the other characters too numerous to even count, both had spot-on timing and played off each other so perfectly, they made each other all the more funny. Dobbins, sporting great-looking mutton chops, channeled the best of Monty Python’s Eric Idle or Terry Jones as the variety show emcee. Strawbridge’s female Scottish innkeeper was so beautifully accurate (I’ve met a few) and strangely beguiling, I laughed out loud and clapped even louder.
In fact, I laughed, chortled, guffawed, clapped, and whistled so many times in this show, I was almost embarrassed at my own antics -- almost. Being a rather quiet audience the evening I came, I wanted to help loosen them up. I could understand some of their reluctance: The 39 Steps is not a play I would call easy or stupid comedy. The scenes evolve quickly and the characters come and go so rapidly, you have to watch carefully and listen intently. This is a comedy of such intelligence, such sharp humor and insider puns, you find yourself laughing at the sheer wonderment of it all as much as the actors’ performances.
I usually give any theatre production who tries a written E for effort. But here, my words lack the emphasis they need to reflect how I feel about the work of Baldwin and the four actors of Theatre Arlington’s The 39 Steps. Anyone who professes to be a “student of theatre” -- be that an actor, director, designer, or lover of the arts -- deserves to go and watch one of the finest examples of this genre of theatre to be seen regionally, or dare I say nationally. It is truly that good, if you will simply allow yourself to watch and learn.
Pegasus News Content partner - John Garcia's The Column
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