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Review: Silliness is Raised to Absurd in Hanover Tavern's Hysterical 39 STEPS

Review: Silliness is Raised to Absurd in Hanover Tavern's Hysterical 39 STEPS
Photo by Aaron Sutten

Audiences have not had more fun at the theatre until they've seen four terrific actors portray more than 150 distinct characters in under two hours.

Alfred Hitchcock's classic 1935 film, "The 39 Steps" is a typical Hitchcockian concoction of action, suspense and surprising twists, topped off with a bit of humor for good measure. Patrick Barlow's amusing adaptation ups the ante on the comedy and adds a bit of absurdity (and dozens of recognizable Hitchcockian references) to this award-winning farce, based on both the film and the 1915 John Buchanan novel. Thanks to a superb cast and crew, Richmond audiences can now experience one of the silliest and most entertaining plays at Virginia Repertory Theatre's Hanover Tavern through March 29.

Review: Silliness is Raised to Absurd in Hanover Tavern's Hysterical 39 STEPS
Photo by Aaron Sutten

The sophisticated Richard Hannay (Alec Beard) catches eyes with the stunning Annabella Schmidt (Irene Kuykendall) during a performance of Mr. Memory, a human wunderkind who regurgitates interesting but sometimes useless facts and information. A gunshot rings out, sending the performers into a panic. In that chaotic moment, Schmidt insists she go with Hannay to which he obliges. Schmidt, a secret agent of sorts, ends up with a knife in her back. Hannay is the prime suspect. So begins a hilarious and sometimes ridiculous chase.

One of the great things about THE 39 STEPS is it's always fresh regardless of the production. This reviewer has seen three different productions, and each has been unique in its approach to the source material. Nathaniel Shaw's production is no different. From invoking miniature action figures and toy airplanes at the most suspenseful moments, to tangling handcuffed actors around and through a ladder gauntlet, Shaw seasons Barlow's smart and funny script with just the right amount of frivolity and physical comedy for the game to not fall stale. With so much movement and action, Shaw's crew, both on and offstage, deliver.

The dialects, which are plenty, are superb thanks to coaching by Karen Kopryanski. Terrie Powers' set design appears minimalist at first but expands into many moving pieces as the show proceeds. B.J. Wilkinson's blend of mostly blue and pink lighting schemes sets the 1930s time and mood perfectly. With rapid-fire changes onstage, Ruth Hedberg's costumes are front and center and critical to the success of the character swapping.

Review: Silliness is Raised to Absurd in Hanover Tavern's Hysterical 39 STEPS
Photo by Aaron Sutten

Playing the straight man, Richmond newcomer Alec Beard, the only actor not taking on multiple roles, leads this first-rate cast as Hannay. Beard delivers to the audience a charming and distinguished Hannay, but his tongue-in-cheek performance keeps the silliness at bay. Irene Kuykendall is wonderful as "the woman", sometimes serving as a femme fatale and sometimes the spirited conqueror.

Taking on more than 100 characters, often without leaving the stage, It's Paul Major and Audra Honaker, who completely steal every moment they are on stage. With the change of a hat or dialect, or shifting their bodies or adding a prop, the two "clowns" transform to new characters at breakneck speeds, showing off masterful comedic skills. One of the funniest moments is the pair's transformation into a pair of very mature seniors, complete with overly exaggerated arching backs and a turtle's pace walk and talk.

Review: Silliness is Raised to Absurd in Hanover Tavern's Hysterical 39 STEPS
Photo by Aaron Sutten

THE 39 STEPS is suspenseful, hilarious and just an all-around entertaining night at the theater. Audiences of all ages will enjoy this high-energy production. THE 39 STEPS runs through March 29 at Hanover Tavern.

Purchase tickets here.


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