BWW Review: Annapolis Shakespeare Company Has Great Fun with ALFRED HITCHCOCK'S THE 39 STEPS and So Will You
It isn't just high art that requires sophistication and delicacy. As demonstrated by Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps, a parody of Hitchcock's humorous thriller of the same name, popular art can call for as much sophistication and thought as the more highbrow stuff. As presented by the Annapolis Shakespeare Company in Patrick Barlow's adaptation (London 2006, Broadway 2010), Alfred Hitchcock'sThe 39 Steps is part music hall, part slapstick, part sex comedy, part thriller - and requires the skills necessary for each. Add to this that it contains 157 roles written to be performed by only four actors.
The original 39 Steps was a 1915 "shocker" novel to which the current show owes little; the real template is Hitchcock's 1935 movie of the same name, whose plot and dialogue the stage show frequently follows closely - with the proviso that Hitchcock meant you to be shocked and breathless and only smile occasionally, while Barlow is aiming not to shock you but to make you guffaw with the deliberate overuse of spy story tropes. The old spy story tropes are clichéd and funny, as are those that animate man-on-the-run thrillers. For instance there's a "MacGuffin" (to use the Hitchcockian term for the item everyone wants which, however, possesses only questionable intrinsic value, e.g., the Maltese Falcon); here it's especially meaningless, some secret information babbled so quickly it's unintelligible. Or take another trope: the running man in the field being buzzed and shot at by an airplane or helicopter. In presenting it, this show visually quotes the North by Northwest version (Cary Grant running from a cropduster), but that 1959 cinematic precedent was Hitchcock quoting an older movie of his very own: Robert Donat evading an autogyro in his movie of (wait for it) The 39 Steps. In other words, not merely a cliché but an inbred cliché. And that really is funny.
As are two Clowns (Andy McCain and Justino Brokaw), who play most of the roles, sometimes swapping them out by moving hats off and on their heads in a rapid juggle, or multiplying their limited forces by unexpectedly deploying man-sized dolls (at one point four simultaneously). As are the exaggerated accents and characterizations and the talent for dressing up in ridiculous costumes that seem to come to them as effortlessly as breathing. As is Sarah Stewart Chapin, who zestily overplays three different damsels: Annabella, a doomed foreign-accented femme fatale whose arrival in the life of the Everyman hero Richard Hannay (Brock D. Vickers) arbitrarily thrusts him into the unfamiliar and dangerous world he must inhabit for the balance of the show; Margaret, a crofter's wife who in one emotionally-charged evening comes perilously close to having her heart stolen away by Richard; and Pamela, who in the person of Madeleine Carroll, long before Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier, made her mark by being handcuffed to a foe and learning to feel differently about him while involuntarily conjoined in the struggle to stay alive.
Vickers, as Hannay, has a distinct kind of comedy mission to accomplish: a consistent (if exaggerated) portrayal of a stiff-upper-lipped, thoroughly decent and physically brave if not always swift in the uptake British (well, Canadian, to be technical) gentleman. He pulls it off, including a pencil-thin moustache, with appropriate sangfroid.
In short, the evening is great fun in an unexpected place. Baltimore audiences may not be familiar with the Annapolis Shakespeare Company (I was not hitherto). But this group is working at a level of professionalism comparable to that of the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, whom Baltimore audiences know well (though the Baltimore troupe's season is fuller of actual Shakespeare). Three of the four cast members are Equity members. The considerable technical demands of the production (innumerable sound and lighting cues, fancy back projections, impeccable and highly varied costumes), all met without a sweat, confirmed my assessment. This is a professional operation. Baltimore audiences should check it out, and this lovely confection is a perfect excuse to do so.
The 39 Steps, adapted by Patrick Barlow from the novel by John Buchan, directed by Sally Boyett, through March 8, at Annapolis Shakespeare Company, 1804 West Street Suite #200 Annapolis, MD 21401. Tickets $39-$65, at https://app.arts-people.com/index.php?ticketing=asc or (410) 415-3513. Comic bloodshed, pistol fire, smoking, drinking, strobe lights, fog-like haze.
Photo Credit: Joshua McKerrow.