BWW Review: THE 39 STEPS at Desert Theatreworks
Summer in the Coachella Valley certainly has a dearth of theatrical choices. However, the companies that do produce shows recognize that hot summer nights call for big, brash comedies. Desert Theatreworks' current offering, The 39 Steps, more than qualifies. The company's Artistic Director, Lance Phillips-Martinez, is the valley's best director of physical comedy, and The 39 Steps is physical comedy on steroids!
Based on Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 movie thriller of the same name, the play, adapted by Patrick Barlow, follows British everyman Richard Hannay (Tanner Lieser) who becomes caught up in preventing an organization of spies called the 39 Steps from stealing British military secrets. After being mistakenly accused of the murder of a counter-espionage agent, Hannay goes on the run to Scotland with an attractive woman (Leslye Martinez plays all three women in the show) in the hopes of stopping the spy ring and clearing his name.
The movie has dozens of locations including a theatre, a moving train, the Scottish Highlands, Hannay's flat, hotel lobbies and rooms, etc,, plus what seems like a hundred supporting players. In DTW's production, most locations are suggested with chairs, tables, and a couple of rolling wall panels. More amazingly, all of the supporting characters are played by two actors: Steve McMillen and Michael Pacas. Their changes of hats, coats, dresses and kilts are lightning fast, and consistently hilarious. At one point, each of them is playing three different characters simultaneously, with their hats literally moving like juggling balls. And changing hats is only the beginning -- these two amazing actors are changing voices and delivering complete characterizations with each change of costumes. At the end of the show when I tried to congratulate them, they both suggested I keep my distance because they were dripping with perspiration!
And even though Tanner Lieser's character is supposedly the normal guy caught up in extraordinary circumstances (think of Cary Grant in many Hitchcock movies), Lieser's rubber face is a constant source of belly laughs. After working on over 20 shows with DTW, Lieser left the area to attend The Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts this past year. I'm delighted he was able to return to bring his trademark zaniness to this production.
Relative newcomer Leslye Martinez plays three different women, aided by three different colors of wigs. The characters are each distinct, with recognizable characteristics as she returns from one character back to a previous one. With a background largely in musicals, Martinez's comedic chops are terrific.
The stage crew, led by DTW's resident stage manager Tresa Oden, earns top marks for the speed and seeming ease with which they rolled, carried, and flew sets on and off the stage. Although the Indio Performing Arts Center doesn't have a fly gallery per se, set designer Eli Caster used a flying scrim about halfway upstage which sometimes covered set changes, sometimes gave a gauzy look to scenes, and sometimes served as a screen for shadow puppets, the funniest being a battle of two bi-planes all done in shadow with sound effects.
And speaking of sound effects, director Phillips-Martinez tripled up on his normal love of music and sound effects. There certainly seemed to be at least 100 sound cues, and they were flawlessly delivered by operator Violet Feath, who I think is just entering high school.
Other off-stage skills include Mark Demry and Lee Padick sharing Assistant Director chores, Christine Michele and Bella Oden working backstage, Art Healy heading up wigs and make-up, Dean George on spotlight, and Maddox Martinez (also entering high school) as the lighting board operator.
The 39 Steps only plays one more weekend, closing on July 1. Further information and tickets are available at www.dtworks.org. The company will also present two more shows this summer as part of their Kidsworks Summer Camp, using young thespians aged from 7 - 19. Aladdin Jr. can be seen July 24 and 25, and Legally Blonde Jr. July 27 - 29.