BWW Reviews: Clackamas Rep's THE 39 STEPS Will Surprise You All the Way Through
Between the Internet and all the entertainment shows on television, it's hard to be surprised when you sit down to watch something these days. Movie trailers give away most of the plot and the best jokes, and someone online will happily post the surprise ending of the latest thriller. You'd better watch the latest episode of your favorite TV show the minute it airs, or someone in your office will spoil the story for you. And when you go to the theater, how many times are you really surprised? You can be charmed by the cast, delighted by their talents, entertained by the songs and dialogue, and moved by the ending...but most shows we see are revivals and retreads, so the most you can hope for is that the cast and creative team are up to the challenges they've set for themselves. And sometimes, when there are surprises, they're unhappy ones. (See my review of The Mountaintop, for example.)
The 39 Steps is filled with surprises, and I'm going to tread lightly as not to ruin them for you. You may know the Hitchcock movie, which came out in the 1930s, and has been remade more than once. Adapting it for the stage may seem like a no-brainer, but playwright Patrick Barlow didn't just put the movie script into his computer and spit out a stage play. This is The 39 Steps as filtered through Monty Python or Carol Burnett. If you're old enough to remember Carol's Saturday night movie parodies, with the wigs that never quite fit and the accents that were hammier than Easter dinner, you'll have a sense of what this show is trying to do.
The story is typical Hitchcock: a dapper Englishman goes to the theater, meets a woman with a strange accent who tells him about a spy ring, and suddenly she's been murdered in his apartment. He has to go to Scotland to clear his name, and dangers lurk on the train, in the Scottish hills, and in the wide variety of people he meets along the way. What Barlow has added is this: the entire piece is performed by a cast of four. One actor plays Richard, the hero; one actress plays three different women who entice him; and two other actors play everyone else.
The tomfoolery starts right away. As a theater volunteer is introducing the show, the actors rush the stage and start applauding loudly, carrying her off so they can get started. Director David Smith-English never lets the action slow down, and the cast is incredibly energetic. There isn't a slow moment or a missed opportunity in the entire show, and there are so many visual gags and bright ideas that it's impossible to single out a favorite moment. The director is assisted adroitly by scenic and lighting designer Chris Whitten, who takes us from a variety of apartments and hotel rooms to the Scottish countryside and the inside, outside, and top of a moving train. Costume designer Alva Bradford has come up with a plethora of adaptable costumes; the cast is in and out of them so quickly sometimes that you assume there must be a whole team of dressers offstage. Special mention has to be made of the projections designed by Orie Weeks and Annie Rimmer, which make a lot of the scenes more exciting, particularly an homage to the best scene in Hitchcock's North by Northwest. (If you're a Hitchcock fan, keep your ears open - there are references to at least half a dozen of the master's films.)
Traivs Nodurft and James Sharinghousen are the two actors charged with playing the ensemble roles, and they're incredibly inventive. It's hard to know which bits come from the script and which come from the cast, but these two men play at least a dozen roles each, sometimes more than one in the same scene, and they never stop coming up with new accents and physical shtick. Pay attention during a scene at a train station involving a lot of hats, or a scene where two cops (played by our two clowns) come to interrogate two innkeepers (also played by our two clowns). All four characters are present in costume, and the sheer audacity of the way they pull it off deserves a standing ovation.
Jayne Stevens conjures up three different women, all of them spouting sexy double entendres in the best old Hollywood way, and she's particularly good as a Scottish farmer's wife who really, really wants to get physical with the hero. Stevens has fun with the accents of her three different women, and while she doesn't get to enjoy the quick-change fun of the others, she's a lot of fun to have around.
It's easy to minimize the work of Jayson Shanafelt as the hero. He's in the same costume throughout the play, playing the same character, but he's got perhaps the hardest assignment of all. Richard is a charming, handsome, slightly stiff leading man, and Shanafelt keeps his composure no matter what's going on. Occasionally he rolls his eyes at the goings-on in front of him (all the actors break the fourth wall from time to time) and he especially has fun in the romantic clinches with his three leading ladies, but he's also got to pull off the trick of keeping the story going while the other actors are clowning around. Shanafelt has an engaging smile, and he's great in the physical comedy scenes, particularly when he's hiding from the police on a train. I can't imagine the show without his steady presence.