Regional Reviews: St. Louis
The 39 Steps
Kate Bergstrom directs, sending her four-person cast through a flurry of very silly bits and goofy Alfred Hitchcock references in act one. But all of that Film History 101 stuff mostly gives way to a classic suspense yarn in the remainder of this two-hour and fifteen-minute show. There's still a boatload of silly props and frantic costume changes and a few nice special effects. But gradually, a magical balance with suspense, and even romance, emerges as well.
John Buchan's original 1915 novel was set during World War I, and Alfred Hitchcock's film updated it to anticipate the second major war in Europe in 1935. This live theater parody is also set in 1935, written by Patrick Barlow for a 2005 stage debut and based on a concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon.
On opening night, the audience burst into applause after the chase scene on a train (three ladders, two trunks, and a few other props, in the dark, in a fog, on a "bridge"). Wrongly accused Richard Hannay (played here by Ryan Colbert) dangles from a siding over a crevasse, being the only man alive who can stop a plot to steal some kind of defense secrets out of England. That hairsbreadth escape, as the whole things spins around on a big turntable in act one, is a tribute to Ms. Bergstrom as a director and to Mr. Colbert as a tirelessly agile performer.
Olivia Gilliatt plays various beautiful women along the way: first, a furtive German who needs a hideout; then a Scottish farm wife; and on to an exceedingly altruistic, almost unbearably outspoken English girl. As Pamela Edwards, she and Hannay go through a surprising number of relationship struggles while out on the lam–so many that we begin to worry more about them ever ending up as a couple, after all that work, rather than the mere fate of this sceptered isle.
The jokes in the first half are pretty lame, but still we laugh. And those baggy-pants bits open our minds to all the frantic nonsense to come in novelist Buchan's action-packed story. Jimmy Kieffer and Futaba Shioda are wonderful as the quick-change artists who fill out the rest of the story: an evil genius and his professional hostess of a wife; various law enforcement officials; a pair of spies masquerading as law enforcement officials; a pair of doomed strafing pilots; a gaggle of duplicitous Scotsmen in their native wild; a pair of stage clowns; and the crucial figure of Dr. Memory–the man who memorizes fifty new facts a day (and his faithful sidekick) when we finally catch our breath, to wrap up at the London Palladium.
If you could ever possibly stop this runaway train, the whole thing would probably bear no rational scrutiny at all. Which makes it the perfect entertainment for troubling times.
The 39 Steps runs through April 10, 2022, at The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, 130 Edgar Rd., St. Louis MO. Proof of vaccination, photo ID, and masks are required. For tickets and information visit www.repstl.org.
* Denotes Member, Actors' Equity Association