Review: THE 39 STEPS at The Loretto Hilton Center For Performing Arts

Absurdity Abounds in The Rep's The 39 Steps

By: Mar. 28, 2022

Review: THE 39 STEPS at The Loretto Hilton Center For Performing Arts

Absurdity Abounds In The Rep's The 39 Steps

Postponed from earlier in the season, The Repertory Theatre of St Louis' The 39 Steps is a raucous, laugh-out-loud experience. Adapted by Patrick Barlow from John Buchan's 1915 novel and Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 film, the play takes the framework of both and guts them, replacing their dramatic innards with heavy doses of Monty Python and Vaudevillian laced jesting.

Satire at its finest, The 39 Steps is a spy thriller set in 1935. It features a seemingly dull protagonist in Richard Hannay, a diffident and ordinary chap living a fairly uninteresting life. However, his routine becomes upended after he has a chance encounter with a mysterious woman, named Annabella who claims to be a spy. Begging for refuge in his home, she is desperate to get away from the devious Professor Jordan and his mysterious organization called The 39 Steps.

However, things turn South fast after she is murdered, placing the unassuming Hannay at the center of a manhunt. On the run and looking for answers, his travels take him to Scotland. On the train there he meets Pamela, a clever woman who is initially dubious of his motives before discovering his innocence. Now embroiled in foiling a plot to sneak secret plans for a silent jet engine out of the country, they must stay one step ahead of the police, and the spies hunting them to stay alive.

Loaded with inventive stagecraft that uses the entire theater as a canvas, The 39 Steps' rapid-fire pace mimics its source material in creating suspense. However, the similarities end there. Shedding any pretense of normalcy, the production's comedy, which mimics the sketches of Monty Python in humor and execution, runs roughshod, providing gag after gag of madcap hilarity.

Debuting with the company, Ryan Colbert and Olivia Gillatt give stellar performances. As Hannay, Colbert balances playing an unsuspecting participant in espionage with that of a dimwitted dolt whose undaunted spirit drives him to persevere onward as he looks to clear his name. His onstage finesse keeps the audience on the edge of their seats while also providing many of the show's best belly laughs.

The versatile Gillatt shoulders most of the production's more serious aspects. Navigating three roles, she keeps the Hitchcockian style of the film with Pamela, a sophisticated can-do gal, and Annabella Schmidt, a cunning spy driven by a strong sense of survival. Her turn as Margaret, a woman Hannay meets on the run, is hilariously entertaining. Playing off the play's battle of the sexes, Gillett stands her ground while giving Pamela a vulnerability and independence that complement Colbert's goofy fugitive.

The small but mighty ensemble cast features four actors utilizing the entire theater as their stage as they perform over 150 roles. To the delight of audiences, most of these parts come courtesy of a pair of dynamic performers, Jimmy Kieffer and Futaba Shioda, whose physical comedy propels the show.

Featured primarily as the diabolical Professor Jordan, Kieffer brings his comedic chops to several roles, including a bumbling henchman and the wife of a Scottish innkeeper. His counterpart, Futaba Shioda also stars as a variety of characters, including the diminutive Mr. Memory, a gifted performer whose power of recollection holds the key to stopping The 39 Steps. Nearly stealing the play, Shioda changes accents, hides inside boxes, and runs amok on stage with reckless abandon.

At a time when the world needs laughter, The 39 Steps is a welcome respite. Crisply directed by Kate Bergstrom with scenic design by Stephanie Osin Cohen, The Rep's season finale gives audiences a hilarious romp that celebrates the frivolous with a barrage of slapstick fun from start to finish. Murder has never been this much fun!

The 39 Steps plays at the Loretto-Hilton Center for the Performing Arts through April 10th. For showtimes and more information, visit