BWW Review: Moonbox Ascends THE 39 STEPS
The 39 Steps
Written by Patrick Barlow and John Buchan, Produced by Sharman Altshuler, Directed by Allison Olivia Choat; Assistant Director, Arthur Gomez; Stage Manager, Amy Lehrmitt; Assistant Stage Manager, Emily Cuerdon; Set Designer, John Paul Devlin; Lighting Designer, Jeffrey E. Salzberg; Costume Designer, Erica DeSautels; Sound Designer, Dan Costello; Props Designer, Emily Rosser; Dialect Coach, Daniel Blackwell
Performances through December 9 by Moonbox Productions at Boston Center for the Arts, Plaza Theatre, 539 Tremont Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-933-8600 or www.moonbox.org
Moonbox is partnering with Y2Y Harvard Square, a student-run homeless shelter for young adults in Cambridge www.y2yharvardsquare.org
Be forewarned if you go to see The 39 Steps by Moonbox Productions that you will be required to use your imagination. If you do so successfully, you will attend the theatre in London, be transported by train to Scotland, witness ferocious dogs chasing a fugitive, spend an evening by a cozy fire in a remote inn, and be entertained by a cast of more than 150 characters. In reality, you'll be in the Plaza Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts, but if you'll agree to suspend disbelief for a couple of hours, you'll experience all this and more, thanks to the talents of Director Allison Olivia Choat, her crew, and the four-person cast of this spy-melodrama-turned-comedy.
Adapted from the 1915 novel by John Buchan and the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock film, Patrick Barlow's version of The 39 Steps made its U.S. premiere in 2007 at Boston's own Huntington Theatre Company, before going on to Broadway and Off-Broadway runs. It goes without saying that the HTC production values were somewhat more grand than those of the Moonbox iteration, but the lower budget, low-tech props and effects actually add to the fun. Set designer John Paul Devlin, lighting designer Jeffrey E. Salzberg, sound designer Dan Costello, and props designer Emily Rosser pull out all the stops, bells, and whistles necessary to create the world of the play, and the cast inhabit their characters so convincingly that less equals more.
Richard Hannay (Kevin Cirone) is a rather dull man, bored by his life and himself, until he meets the mysterious, raven-haired Annabella Schmidt (Sarah Gazdowicz) one night at the theater. After inviting herself home with him, she winds up with a knife in her back, and Hannay must elude both the police and a ring of spies while he tries to track down the secrets she was pursuing. Along the way, with the exception of two more women played by Gazdowicz, everyone he meets is portrayed by Man 1 (Bob Mussett) and Man 2 (Matthew Zahnzinger) in a pair of hilarious, tour de force performances. They change hats, costumes, and accents so many times that it will make your head spin and you can't help but wonder how Mussett and Zahnzinger know who they are at any given moment. In addition to their string of schizophrenic characterizations, they run around rearranging the furniture for every scene change with only a modicum of help from the backstage crew. (I'm breathless just recalling it.)
Choat has done a fantastic job reimagining the action, as well as drawing top-notch performances from all four of the actors. I would go so far as to say that I've never seen Cirone better than he is as the stiff upper-lipped Hannay. The pencil-thin mustache and the 1930's-appropriate suit add some flavor to his portrayal, but his accent is consistently spot on, as are his expressions and low-key demeanor. He disappears into the character and effortlessly carries on as the straight man while the hijinks ensue all around him. Gazdowicz is excellent as three diverse women, showing some seriously good comic timing. As Schmidt, her accent seemed to vary between British and German, but it only added to her aura of mystery. She is also the beneficiary of costume designer Erica Desautels' flair for fashion to help differentiate her characters.
Now in their sixth season, Moonbox Productions does consistently strong theater with local talent. They select a non-profit partner to present to their audiences, and this time around it is Y2Y Harvard Square, a student-run homeless shelter for young adults in Cambridge. As an arts organization that fulfills a dual mission of entertaining its audience while doing good in the world, Moonbox has made its mark on the Boston theater scene. They are small in scale, but nothing less than professional, and serve as a reminder that good theater is a good story well told.