Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
The 39 Steps
In Patrick Barlow's 2005 theatrical adaptation of the 1915 John Buchan novel and 1935 Alfred Hitchcock movie The 39 Steps (ranked in 1999 by the British Film Institute as the fourth-best 20th century film), the suspense and dark natures of the story are turned upside down through a ridiculously fast-paced, spontaneous-feeling script. Turning the nail-biter espionage book and film into a rip-roaringly funny, fast-action play, Barlow never lets us forget the source that he mimics by lacing throughout his script hilarious references to other Hitchcock favorites of the audience. When all this is put into the hands of director Leslie Martinson and her fantastically talented creative team assembled for TheatreWorks Silicon Valley's revival of its rib-tickling 2011 production, the descriptors in the opening paragraph of this review can only be a miniscule teaser of the seemingly hundreds of wild and crazy things occurring onstage as a talented cast of four once again present the Barlow adaptation with full fun and flair.
The basic storyline of The 39 Steps has stayed the same throughout its evolutionary path from the page to the stage. At the theatre, a rather debonair chap named Richard Hannay finds himself suddenly "kidnapped" from his box seat to his own apartment by a sexy, mysterious woman with heavy German accent, Annabelle Schmidt. Before she quickly becomes a stiff corpse with a knife in her back, he learns from her enough to understand that she is on a mission as a counter-spy to keep important, national security information from leaving England. With her dying breath, she sends him on a harried chase to Scotland to find and interrupt "the thirty-nine steps" (code name, we will learn, for a spy chain, most assuredly connected to the rising Nazi regime of Germany), all the time while also on the run from local police with his picture and accusing headlines plastering every newspaper for a murder he did not commit.
While the basics of the Hitchcock movie are retained in TheatreWorks' production of Patrick Barlow's adaptation, there is much more to enjoy than just the film master's black-and-white play of shadows and light. Life-and-death chases through fog-covered bogs on the Scottish highlands, trips on bumpy country roads and swaying trains, and escapes from barking dogs and diving airplanes are all accomplished through the ingenuity of what appears to be actor improvisation but is actually a highly conceived ballet of arms, legs, and bodies moving at lightning speed in all directions. While the actor playing the ever-serious-to-his-mission Hannay is constant throughout the play, two other male actors continuously switch hats, coats, voices, stances and demeanors to take on roles as police, newsboys, villains, country bumpkins, underwear salesmen, and dozens of other quirky parts of varied nationalities and accents. The remaining member of the troupe, a female, plays the enticing but doomed counter-spy, a country inn hostess with heavy Scottish brogue and a big heart, a young farm wife with a wretched husband, and a train passenger who finds herself eventually handcuffed and on the run with a man she has recognized as the accused London murderer (our very own Richard Hannay).
Lance Gardner is suave and smooth in voice and movement as the handsome Richard Hannay, whose British accent is ever so correct and sophisticated. His low-key manner and his deadly seriousness of the mission to save his country given him by a dying stranger in his apartment are in great contrast to the other actors' over-done accents and manic switching of persona, costumes, and even sexes right before his steady, almost sparkling eyes and pencil-thin mustache. When his Richard is chased by pursuers through the dark bogs of the Scottish Highlands, his tippy-toe manner across the front row of the audience is nothing short of cute as he so desperately tries to look and be scared while also retaining his cool.
Annie Abrams makes great use of dialect coach Janel Miley's expertise as she changes from one female role to the next. In particular as the invading Anabella Schmidt, she is riotous, with a voice that ranges from low and sexy to high and squeaky, with her overly dramatic movements highlighted by a silly German accent where a breathy "sch" substitutes for "s" in words like "schtopped" or "schtepped." When her Pamela becomes handcuffed to the man she believes is a murderer, the two are jointly a riot trying to maneuver through the countryside, crossing a fence (actually a ladder) with their hands, legs and bodies continually becoming like two pretzels entangled in the most compromising of positions. Such antics are the proof not only of each actor's comedic expertise but also of the countless twinkling touches of tongue-in-cheek throughout the production by director Leslie Martinson.
As they bring several score of city and countryside good and bad guys (and gals) to life before our eyes, Ron Campbell and Cassidy Brown (a veteran of a number of 39 Steps productions) draw time and again the evening's biggest laughs. With great use of Cathleen Edwards' ingenuous designs of quick-change costumes, hats and wigs, they switch ages, nationalities, economic classes, or sexes at the turn of a corner, a twist in and out of a coat, a rush through a coat rack, or even right before our eyes without blinking an eye. In one sequence when the two are on the train with Richard, the entire audience erupts in non-stop giggles as they madly switch hats to go back and forth, over and again from policeman to conductor to paperboy to male passenger to female passenger. Like Annie Abrams, they too employ a number of dialects with great ease and effect, from high English airs to country Scottish slurs to harsh German clicks.
While the earlier TheatreWorks staging of The 39 Steps was accomplished mostly on a bare stage, David Lee Cuthbert has for this production created an eye-popping, fascinating staging that combines the looks of a 1930s musical hall with stage and balconies along with the high-arched ceiling and metal frameworks of a European train station of the period. At the same time, there are aspects of everything taking place backstage of a theatre with trunks, coat racks, and the like populating the stage and serving as stand-ins for all sorts of needs (e.g., petticoats that become sheep blocking a back road).
Lighting designer Steven B. Mannshardt uses great ingenuity delivered with evident big smiles as lights swirl and dance during mad-dash chases, as moods shift from the most ridiculous to the most dire, and as fugitives cross dark and dank fields on a stage mostly bare but lit to produce that reality. Cliff Caruthers' sound design peppers scene changes with period music and enhances scenes with dramatic chords of warning that have all the sound of a Hitchcock film.
With all its frenetic pace and hundreds of improvisations to keep us mostly in breathless stitches, there are times when The 39 Steps slows to a snail's pace with the momentarily extended dialogue between two characters causing the energy flow to drop drastically. This is particularly true a couple of times in the second half (e.g., a scene between Hannay and the evil Professor Jordan).
But all in all, there is little not to like and relish with fervor in TheatreWorks Silicon Valley's revisit of The 39 Steps. Whatever happy memories many of its loyal audience members may have of the 2011 production that might have made some skeptical of reviving the show in 2019 (including myself, true confession), Leslie Martinson's vision along with the cast and crew of this season's The 39 Steps answer any doubts that this is a riotous play worth another look and a few more laughs.
The 39 Steps, through September 15, 2019, at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View CA. For tickets and information, visit www.theatreworks.org or call 650-463-1960, Monday - Friday 11 a.m. - 6 p.m. and Saturday - Sunday, Noon - 6 p.m.