Thursday, September 23, 2010

The 39 Steps

Farcical THE 39 STEPS delights at the Cleveland Play House

THE 39 STEPS, now on stage at the Cleveland Play House, is best known as a 1935 British film directed by Alfred Hitchcock, which was loosely based on a novel by John Buchan. Though the play closely follows the film, Patrick Barlow's stage adaptation, leaves the thriller aspects behind and stresses the fun of the piece. Fun spelled f-a-r-c-e.

Patrick Barlow is a believer in “self-reflexive thought theatre.” The concept recognizes that what is happening on the stage is taking place in a theatre, before an audience. The audience knows it. The actors know it. So, let's not hide the obvious, but use devices and exaggeration to have fun. His concept uses little to create a lot-a few set pieces, some props, and very few actors. In fact, in THE 39 STEPS, 4 actors play over 140 characters. Yep, 1-4-0.

Farce, in the form of double takes, things going deliberately wrong, actors coming out of character, exaggerations, visual images that are created by ladders and a fan turning into a airplane, people walking up and down stairs when no stairs are there, dives off a bridge that isn't there, into water that isn't there, costumes being torn off and others put on before our very eyes, and hats being switched at such a speed that even the actors can't keep track of them. Yes, this is fun stuff.

The stage version started in 1995 when the show toured small villages and tiny theatres in England, It was brought to London in 2005, opened in Boston in 2007, came to New York in 2008, won two Tony Awards, and is still running.

The story concerns Richard Hannay, a Canadian who has come back to England. He is bored, so he goes to a music hall. As he is watching a demonstration of the superlative powers of Mr. Memory, shots are fired. Into his box comes a mysterious woman who talks him into taking her back to his apartment. There, she tells him that she is a spy, being chased by assassins, and that she has uncovered a plot to steal vital British military secrets, masterminded by a man with the top joint missing from one of his fingers. She mentions the "thirty-nine steps." but does not explain its meaning. And so, we start on our madcap romp, complete with dramatic music each time the 39 steps are mentioned!

The Play House production, as directed by Peter Amster, gets it mostly right. Amster and his cast know how to create farce, and, except for some lag spots, they hit all the right tickle bones.

Rob Johansen and Joe Foust, as Clown 1 and 2, are amazing. Their quick changes in costumes, vocal sounds, accents and physicality are engrossing. Nick Sandys is character right as Richard Hannay, and Sarah Nealis plays all the women (except when one of the clowns is playing a woman) with panache.

Linda Buchanan's scenic, Michael Lincoln's lighting, Victoria Toy DeIorio's sound designs enhance the production.

Alex, my teen age grandson, who is known around town as “The Kid Reviewer” as he opens the window of how tweens and teens will react to shows, had very positive words of wisdom. He was “really” delighted. He agreed with grandpa about the lull segments-the end of act I, the hotel segment in the room, and the final scene. He found himself laughing with glee at the “shticks” and appreciated the talent needed to portray “all of those parts.” He thought kids and their parents “will really enjoy the show,” especially all the “really funny parts.” (He's a teenager who likes the word “really.”)

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: Seeing farce done well is a rarity. The Cleveland Play House, during the run of THE 39 STEPS, is an excellent place to experience farce done right! Go! Laugh! Enjoy!