Monday, March 14, 2016

THE 39 STEPS, British farcical fun, at Blank Canvas

What do you do if  you are bored?  If you are Richard Hannay, the major character in Patrick Barlow’s THE 39 STEPS, now on stage at Blank Canvas, you go to the theater to see “something mindless and trivial.”  If you, personally are bored and looking for something to fill your time, THE 39 STEPS should fill the bill!

The farcical melodrama, a mix of a Hitchcock mystery and Monty Python-like ridiculousness, is based on a 1915 novel by John Buchan and Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film of the same name.

In 2007 the play won the prestigious Olivier Award, the British equivalent of the Tony Award.  It also holds the record as the fifth longest running play in West End history.

In the play, Hannay goes to the theatre to see a clairvoyant perform.  An attractive blond sits next to him in his London music hall box.  A shot rings out, chaos follows, the blond and Hannay wind up in his flat. 

The next morning the blond is killed, Hannay, sure he will be accused of being the killer, flees to Scotland’s most remote highlands.  He is confronted by a man with a severed pinky, detectives who want to arrest him, and a plot against Britain by the Nazis. 

Hannay is constantly pursued, having interludes with attractive women, and escaping via train, car and on foot.  Of course, in the end, as is the case with all over-blown melodramatic farces, he wins both the girl and his freedom.

The script is filled with puns and allusions to such Hitchcock flicks as “Strangers on a Train,” “Rear Window,” “Psycho,” and “Vertigo.”  It isn’t required that the viewer can identify these references, but it doesn’t hurt.

The meaning of the title?  I’m not going to tell, that would reveal the little bit of real mystery in the script.

The format for the play can be exhausting, for both the cast and the audience.  Four players portray many, many characters…keeping track is of who is who is almost impossible.  One actor inhabits the role of Hannay.  A female plays three different femme fatales who find themselves in romantic interactions with Hannay. 

The remaining two actors, complete with lots of hats, dresses, jackets, coats, wigs and mustaches, are the police, hotel owners, announcers, and every other person, both male and female, who lead us on a merry, no-holds barred chase for justice.

To achieve the desired hilarity, the staging requires lightening swift quick-changes.  This is where the Patrick Ciamacco directed show both succeeds and stumbles.

On the positive side, the projection designs created by Perren Hedderson, and carried out by projectionist Zac Hudak, not only instantly create moving trains and cars, but fill in for what would normally be scenery and informing signage.  Also, the actors are adequately able to quickly change character clarifiers, such as hats, coats and mustaches.

On the other hand the use of four large and heavy wooden crates, which stand in for railroad cars, desks, tables and other scenery items, are cumbersome and take much time to move around.  Though creative, they slow down the quick movements necessary, and cause long blackouts while they are flipped, shuffled and carried into place. 

In addition, the actors sometimes flub lines and lose track of their vocal characterizations.   Though this sometimes adds to the hilarity, it breaks the flow of the show and we wind up laughing at the errors rather than the goings on.

Ciamacco, in his directorial play program notes, comments on his love of the Marx Brothers and their vaudeville comedy style.  He has applied this to the “let’s put on a show” nature of the script with great intention, but the execution is sometimes not the required perfection of the Marx Brothers, whose impeccable timing was all-important to create farce in which we laughed at the lines and the situations, not the shticks and gimmicks.

As for the cast, Joe Kenderes delights as Richard Hannay.  He, in contrast to others in the plot, plays his role totally straight, thus fulfilling the dictum of good farce…laugh with the characters, not at them.   Both Kevin Kelly and Michael Prosen, playing all the male roles, get lots of laughs, but would have been more effective had they let the farce play out and not begged for laughs.  Rachael Swartz was didn’t always differentiate between the three females she played, but was generally effective.

The London production of the show was a total romp.  The British are perfectionists in doing musical hall farce.  Unfortunately, Americans often aren’t quite up to that level.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT:  THE 39 STEPS is a farcical romp which gets a good, but not great production.  If your theater liking is for improbable plot twists, and extended ridiculousness, the Blank Canvas production makes for a chucklefest that should delight you.

Blank Canvas’s THE 39 STEPS runs though June 27, 2015 in its west side theatre, 1305 West 78th Street, Suite 211, Cleveland.  Get directions to the theatre on the website. Once you arrive at the site, go around the first building to find the entrance and then follow the signs to the second floor acting space.  For tickets and directions go to

Blank Canvas’s next show is LAUGHING FROM THE FRINGE, directed by theatre reviewer, playwright and actor Christine Howey.  It is part of Blank Canvas’s Factory Series and consists of two one-acts from the 2015 New York International Fringe Festival.  It will be staged from April 15-23, 2016.