BWW Reviews: Allenberry Playhouse Gets a Workout With THE 39 STEPS

By: Oct. 20, 2012
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Well, children, you see, in 1915 a man named John Buchan wrote a novel called – no, scratch that.  Once upon a time there was a very, very famous director named Alfred Hitchcock, who did a lot of very, very important movies – yes, right, "Psycho", with the stabbing in the shower, very good.  He also did a movie in 1935 titled "The 39 Steps", based on John Buchan's novel, and then Patrick Barlow turned it into a play titled – yes, Johnny, right, it's called THE 39 STEPS.  It played the West End where it won an Olivier Award for Best Comedy in 2007, and then it came to the US and won two Tonys for lighting and sound, and had four other nominations, including for Best Play.  And it's playing right now at Allenberry Playhouse, where… well, children, yes, it would help if you'd seen some Alfred Hitchcock movies other than "Psycho". 

Forgive that opening, but it's all true – including the thought that half the audience will miss a quarter of the jokes because they don't know Hitchcock's collected works.  THE 39 STEPS is indeed a thriller, and the play keeps the book and movie plot intact… while still being a comedy… in fact, possibly more of a farce than a straight comedy. While at Allenberry, however, this reviewer did hear several under-40s requiring explanation that there are in fact Hitchcock movies such as "North By Northwest" and "Rear Window", and that Barlow has no compunction about punning his way through Hitchcock's other repertoire to tell this story.  Brush up your Hitchcock, young'uns. 

THE 39 STEPS is cast with four actors playing approximately 150 parts, while only the lead actor plays the same character, adventurer Rchard Hannay, all the way through.  As Hannay, Dustin Charles (no stranger to this show) gives an energetic performance that takes him on top of a moving train, across the moors, away from chase planes, around, under and through a farm stile, and into multiple confrontations with evil foreign agents, all without a costume change or much opportunity to breathe as he's basically in every scene.  

Abi Van Andel, the female lead, plays three characters – beautiful German spy Anabella Schmidt, who encounters Hannay at a vaudeville performance; Margaret, a borEd Scottish farm wife, and Pamela Richardson, a young, spunky Englishwoman who's thrown into Hannay's dangerous path.  Although Van Andel admits to a fondness for the part of Annabella, a beautiful and perfectly dressed over-the-top adventuress with a secret Hannay can't pry from her, she is remarkable as Pamela, whose handcuffed dash across the Scottish moors with Hannay requires a carefully choreographed set of moves resembling a fierce game of Twister as they attempt to get through farm stiles while running from murderous Nazi agents.  Her Margaret, however, is extremely amusing, as she thrills to Hannay's recollections of glamorous city living, and as she prepares a distinctly atypical farm dinner for Hannay and her dairy-farmer husband. 

The two other actors, dubbed "Clowns", perform all the rest of the parts – police, train conductors, newsboys, German agents, hotel staff, and virtually every other character that can be thrown into the mix throughout the show, with a number of costume changes (sometimes a series of choreographed on-stage hat changes) that even they couldn't count by the time the show was over.  Clown 1 is Roque Berlanga, Allenberry's Artistic Director, back on stage at long last, playing parts from a vaudeville performer with a penchant for memory feats to the party-hostess wife of an estate-owning scientist and everyone in between.  Sean Riley, Clown 2, plays everyone else, most notably The Villain in several scenes (hint: in a non-Hitchcock movie, "Invasion of the Body Snatchers", the hands were a dead giveaway for the bad guys, and a different hand identifier reveals The Villain here).  If Charles' performance is energetic, theirs is dizzying, as they are on-and-off stage repeatedly with at least partial changes of costume nearly every time.  Physical fitness is as important as acting talent in these parts, and Berlanga and Riley indeed manage to survive the mad dash while retaining some slight degree of aplomb (but not too much). 

The various police who cross Hannay's path think his story is a bit fishy, and indeed, there's a fishy element to this show… both in the script, with its haddock and herring references, and in a hysterically envisioned moment with Charles, Van Andel and Berlanga, who turn The Farmhouse dinner into a series of red herrings in this production.  

The heroes of this show, though, are director Andrew Lyons, an Allenberry veteran, and Erik Champion, Allenberry's sound designer.  Lyons not only knows Allenberry's stage but the entire cast, even though all of them had not worked together before, and he respects the Herculean feats that cast members are required to pull off in this show to make it work.  Champion, faced with a play that's won a Tony for sound design, worked from scratch to arrange and to layer sound effects for an incredible number of cues (189, at his count).  Says Champion, "This show is a challenge.  A lot of this script calls for sound effects.  Some of them are set in stone but others can be expanded.  And giving actors sounds to play off of is a great deal of fun.  You can't get a sound effects CD for this show – you have to build it.  You have to layer it and play with it until it works.  All in all, this is my most favorite – and my most challenging – show."  In that effort, Champion has succeeded with this production, and with his own Herculean effort given Allenberry's challenges. 

There are a few slow moments and slow blackouts that will no doubt be smoothed out with successive performances, but otherwise, this is a highly entertaining production with no evident major flaws.  Lyons' direction is sound, tight, and shows his understanding of the Allenberry stage.  Champion's sound design is highly impressive.  And the train chase sequence and the plane chase are inspired bits of work, especially in Charles' performance.  You'll find this production well worth your time.  At Allenberry Playhouse through November 10; call 717-258-3211 or visit for tickets.

 Photo Credit: Cindy King


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