The title may make it sound like an extremely intense addiction recovery program, but The 39 Steps actually refers to… I’m pretty sure it has something to do with foreign spies.
I’ve seen the original Alfred Hitchcock film as well as a 2008 lackluster BBC remake, but don’t remember there ever being a complete explanation behind the meaning of the term “The 39 Steps.” I kind of always preferred the Sesame Street version of “Monsterpiece Theater presents The 39 Stairs” starring Grover and a staircase. That at least makes sense.
The 1935 Hitchcock film, adapted from the 1915 novel The 39 Steps by John Buchan, is a classic, and regarded as one of Hitchcock’s best. I don’t think it’s on the same level as his later works, but there’s no denying the film still holds up 80 years later. There are even two additional British remakes that were released in 1959 and 1978, but I haven’t bothered to watch them in their entirety. Oscar-nominated director Gus Van Sant went so far as to produce a shot for shot remake of the Hitchcock classic Psycho in 1998, which only helped prove that it’s impossible to improve on Hitchcock.
The stage adaptation, originally written by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon then rewritten by Patrick Barlow in 2005, has no ambitions to improve on Hitchcock, but rather have a little satirical fun incorporating the absurdity already inherent in the original film. It is not only a spoof of The 39 Steps, but of the entire aesthetic of the film noir genre and Hitchcock canon. The references range from something as subtle as a snippet of a recognizable music score to the blatant pun of one character instructing another to look out the “rear window” with an emphatic delivery like the comedy gold that it clearly isn’t. A definite crowd pleaser, the London West End production ran for nine years and the Broadway production ran for three.
The storyline is quintessential 1930’s espionage thriller noir. Richard Hannay is a mild-mannered everyman who finds himself on the run from shady figures after a fetching femme fatale is mysteriously murdered in his modest London flat. Along the way he encounters many interesting characters, including the archetypal Hitchcock blonde, to whom Hannay is literally attached during the final act.
The entire plot of the film is performed by only four actors for the stage production, and has been described as “four actors portraying over a hundred characters.” I can’t help but wonder if this wasn’t simply because someone at some point must have exclaimed, “It’s like they’re playing over a hundred different characters!” and that somehow stuck. By my count the number of characters totals less than fifty. Still, all hyperbole or exaggerations aside, The 39 Steps is a very funny and entertaining piece of theater destined to entertain film and theater goers alike, regardless of their level of knowledge for the original work (though having seen the original film certainly helps).
Tidewater Stage is opening their fifth season with the first local professional production of The 39 Steps (The Little Theatre of Virginia Beach produced the regional premiere several years ago) and has transformed the Studio Theater at Regent University into a nice dark atmosphere suitable for the play’s needs. The set, designed by David Shuhy, allows the versatility needed for several different settings, and light designer Jeff Brangan knows that an effective noir needs the tightest of lighting, isolating various areas in separate pools of light… and there’s also a nifty lighting effect at the end of the first act.
Director Michael Hill-Kirkland has the challenge of staging the production in a three-quarters audience presentation, and for the most part succeeds through the use of a small rotating disc at the center of the performance space. Some moments, such as a train sequence full of gags and countless character shifts, are too large to fit on the rotating space, which results in bad sightlines for the audience members sitting on the sides. Those audience members, however, do get the benefit of witnessing a particularly amusing moment in the 360-degree catwalk that takes place behind the largest portion of the audience not sitting on the sides.
Local actor and third year MFA Acting student John Forkner gets the most use of the catwalk, playing Hannay as he rushes from scene to scene evading whatever character is out to get him at the moment. Forkner, who was excellent as C.S. Lewis in last year’s Tidewater Stage production of Freud’s Last Session, is a perfect fit for the frazzled everyman. He embodies the British genteel aspect with aplomb, and seems to have been born to wear a pencil thin mustache.
Regent alumni Ryan Clemens and Chad Rasor are credited as Clown 1 and Clown 2 (thankfully not of the circus variety) who deftly switch from one character to the next sometimes through something as simple as donning a new hat (and absolutely splendid hats at that, as part of C.J. Hill’s impeccable costume design). The script is clearly written for the Clowns to be comedic scene stealers, and both Clemens and Rasor are certainly up to the task. The bulk of the show’s comedic success rests on their shoulders, and they are more than capable to perform all the heavy lifting, finding new heights of zaniness with each new character they embody without ever pushing the gag outside the boundaries of funny. The political rally sequence in the second half is masterfully executed by all involved (including perhaps Forkner’s strongest moment as he delivers Hannay’s impromptu speech to the crowd), and is an excellent example of a fantastic moment where everything clicks into place just right (with no small contribution from a well measured sound design from Stephen Peppos).
Kate Sarafolean Scheid, a recent Regent MFA Acting graduate, has less to do even though the script calls for her to portray three different characters, including the aforementioned femme fatale and Hitchcock blonde. The accents for her later characters are stronger than her first, but that may simply be a choice to make the femme fatale more of a caricature for humorous effect, even though the comedy in The 39 Steps is at its best when there’s a more honest respect to the lampooning rather than broad buffoonery. Her physical comedy skills, however, are just as sharp as her male counterparts.
Another important aspect of a comedy like The 39 Steps is pace, and while there aren’t any particular moments in this production that feel slow, it does end up clocking in at almost two and a half hours (even though the original production ran under 2 hours, closer to the under 90 minute run time of the film itself). This cast certainly seems game and more than capable for fast-paced comedy as is evidenced in several sequences, but there are also moments where there seems to be too much fondness for “the bit” and they allow the gag to play out a little longer than necessary. But it’s hard to blame them when everyone both on stage and in the audience is having such a great time.
And there is a great time to be had at the Tidewater Stage presentation The 39 Steps. I would recommend following the link above to the original film on YouTube prior to going so you can see just how precise the parody is (it’s evident that the entire company of this production is very familiar in deed), but don’t consider it a requirement. Things don’t always have to make sense, especially when it’s this funny.
The 39 Steps runs thru June 25 at the Studio Theatre on Regent University’s campus. Fri 7:30pm, Sat 2:30pm & 7:30pm, Sun 2:30pm. Tix: $24 Reg, $21 Student/Senior/Military/Kids. Click here to buy now, or call the box office at (757) 352-4245. And let us know in the comments what you think of the show! (or the movie…)