TheatreWorks “The 39 Steps” Review – An Iconic Suspense Film Theatricalized

“The 39 Steps,” presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley August 21 – September 15, 2019 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts

With good fun for all, TheatreWorks Silicon Valley , Silicon Valley’s  2019 Regional Theatre Tony Award winner, makes an auspicious start on its next half century with The 39 Steps

(l to r): On the hunt for a murderer, policemen (Ron Campbell and Cassidy Brown) find Richard Hannay (Lance Gardner) and Pamela (Annie Abrams) kissing in a train car in “The 39 Steps,”

Classic film buffs and Hitchcock fans, who although they intersect are not a complete overlap, will find much to appreciate in this theatricalized speeded-up version of  a classic suspense film, rejiggered for laughs. A film usually transforms natural life by necessity to compress long stretches, with different episodes, into the typical tight time limits of a film. Of course, there  are notable exceptions, like Luis Bunuel’s Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie, that break the compression rule to exaggerate the vacuity of  ordinary life. The premise of Patrick Barlow’s stage version of Alfred Hitchcock’s film is to go beyond the jerkily speeded up motion of silent film technology by an order of magnitude in order to distill an iconic director’s  essence and instill humor, disturbing received audience assumption of filmic order.

TRichard Hannay (Lance Gardner) wrestles a map out of Annabella Schmidt’s (Annie Abrams) lifeless hands in “The 39 Steps,”

Drawing upon the artistic  repertoires of virtually disappeared art forms such as vaudeville and radio drama, the adaptor shares the mechanics of  speed-up with the audience. Thus, we view the sound effects being created from the sidelines and the absurd costume changes that structure the action that  by design, make us laugh. Indeed, vaudeville is an essential element of the original film, perhaps inspiring the vaudevilization of the entire performance. Mr. Memory, a human computer in the pre-digital era, with an inexhaustible store of facts  displays them in response to questions from the audience. In the TheatreWorks version, audience members are given placards with questions to read-off, breaking the theatre’s fourth wall while finding an ingenious solution to providing an audience in a play whose multiple characters are successively and hilariously portrayed by only four actors. They rapidly change roles as well as costume, another humor generating technique.

(clockwise from upper left): Pamela (Annie Abrams), Richard Hannay (Lance Gardner) and two inspectors (Cassidy Brown and Ron Campbell) go on a wild ride in “The 39 Steps,” presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley

Lance Gardner is a dashing Richard Hannay, the epitome of author John Buchan’s, British Empire versatile, resourceful, hero, notable for  Canadian nationality in this instance. This semi-outsider background is brought to the forefront of attention in his attempt to pose a query stumper.  The distance between Winnipeg and Toronto is quickly dispatched by the Authority, after some hand-motions to indicate the internal whirring of a mechanic-like brain. Mr. Memory’s   “dumb” demeanor is unerringly enacted by Cassidy Brown, along with a series of wildly contrasting characters to follow. Female characters are ably acted by Annie Abrams. Her Annabella Schmidt  is closest in voice, diction and impending doom to her film predecessor’s, with her assassination taking her performance over the top in accordance with this version’s strictures. Ron Cambell is similarly role-dexterous  in pinging among various male characters. 

(l to r): Mr. McGarrigle (Cassidy Brown) and Mrs. McGarrigle (Ron Campbell) offer Pamela (Annie Abrams) and Richard Hannay (Lance Gardner) a room at their hotel in “The 39 Steps,”

Originating as a two person show to capture economies of down-scaling, this four person version  allows more flexibility while retaining pace. TheatreWorks appears to have added inside joke references to Hitchcock’s other work as well as a silhouette of the master himself in homage to the iconic Director’s habit of briefly appearing in his own films,  just missing a Fifth Avenue bus in North by Northwest and as a rear seat passenger in To Catch a Thief. This reviewer recalls the earlier British model, at least in its road show version, as seen circa 2007 at Newcastle’s Theatre Royal as a  black and white version, with motion even more speeded. This contemporary Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts performance, has various hilarious sight gags  that the original may have lacked. 

(l to r): Richard Hannay (Lance Gardner) worries his identity has been discovered by two traveling salesmen (Cassidy Brown and Ron Campbell) in “The 39 Steps,”

Genre transfer, usually from play to movie, is in this instance reversed, as a  classic motion picture, albeit one with a theatrical scene to build upon, is successfully theatricalized. Pared down to its essentials and speeded up 39 Nine Steps, effectively captures the fraught atmosphere of the run-up to the 2nd World War.  The agonistic struggle between Nazi Germany and the United Kingdom, just being set fully in motion in 1935, lends a serious undertone to this  erstwhile funny bone tickler. Surely Alfred Hitchcock, who reveled in recuperating his favorite themes in successive works, would be a fan and would doubtless have  loved to have been able to take to the stage and call cell phones off in his inimitable style. 

“People can’t get enough of this high-speed, hilarious hit, so we’ve added three more performances! Great seats are now available for the following dates and times:

Saturday, September 21 at 2pm
Saturday, September 21 at 8pm
Sunday, September 22 at 2pm

Get your tickets today, and see for yourself why audiences and critics alike are captivated by the mystery of The 39 Steps!”

More information about TheatreWorks

Photos: Kevin Berne

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