By Beki Pineda
THE 39 STEPS – Adapted by Patrick Barlow from the movie of Alfred Hitchcock; Directed by Steven Cole Hughes. Produced by Lone Tree Arts Center in conjunction with Starkey Theatrix (Lone Tree Arts Center, 10075 Commons St in Lone Tree) through April 11. Tickets available at 720-509-1000 or www.lonetreeartscenter.org.
I remember hearing people rave about 39 STEPS when the Denver Center did it a few years ago. It was SO funny that it sold out every night. There were NO tickets to be had. So I didn’t get to see that one. I’ve seen it twice since then and couldn’t quite figure out what people were raving about. Amusing? Yes. But hysterical? No. Ever the optimist, I thought I’d give it one more shot when Lone Tree announced they were doing it.
NOW I see what people were raving about. This version has the precision of a Charlie Chaplin movie, the choreography of rapid fire tap dance routine, and the languid charm of a Kurosawa movie. Director Steven Cole Hughes has engaged four actors at the top of their game and created an ensemble that works together like a string quartet. Then when something unexpected happens (as it is bound to because of the crazy physicality of this production), they are confident enough in each others abilities to play like children and go with the flow. It is a delight to watch.
They pull out all the stops and display an athleticism that garnered ‘oh’s’ and ‘ah’s’ from the audience. One segment had two actors “running on the top of a train” (which was actually a horizontal ladder placed between two vertical ladders!) at least seven feet off the ground. And then hanging upside down from said ladder when one ‘fell’ off the train. They fall off balconies, climb to the top of the theatre, prat fall through windows, tangle themselves into a knot using handcuffs and a fence . . . all with a balletic grace and the comic timing of a young Dick Van Dyke.
The beleaguered hero Hannay is played by the devilishly handsome John DiAntonio. He’s a combination of Rupert Everett and Brendan Fraser. He manages to do the most outrageous things without ever losing his dignity or charm. He is joined by Heather Hughes playing all the women’s roles: Annabelle, the dark haired femme fatale whose dramatic death starts Hannay on his journey; Margaret, the red-headed innocent country wife; and Pamela, the witness who gets handcuffed to Hannay. All are distinctly realized and made vulnerable in different ways.
The two clowns who play all the other roles are Sammie Joe Kinnett and Graham Ward. They parlay their opposite body types into physical jokes. Ward is a tightly wired mini-Martin Short while Kinnett is a loosely wrapped gentle giant a la Chris Farley. It is especially sweet that this director gives the actors the time they need to set up and build the comic bits. Sammie’s brilliantly funny attempts to create a car out of four chairs and a reading stand takes a good two or three minutes. And it’s a GOOD two or three minutes that has the audience laughing throughout and applauding his final success. Just one example of how they use both rapid and slow pacing to achieve the best comic result.
Homage is paid to many of Hitchcock’s movies and the Master himself makes a surprise appearance. They throw in Matrix moves and reference Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks and every other wacky thing they can think of.
The setting – an empty music hall – enhances the very theatrical aspects of the presentation. Furniture and set pieces are pushed on or off and moved around by the two clowns. The red curtains close to provide an additional acting space in front. Small side and balcony entrances allow for a variety of comic effects. This production relies on great sound effects. Some are provided by the sound board such as breaking glass as they jump through windows and wind effects as they climb outside the train. Others are provided by items on stage like the haddock that squeak as they are placed on a plate. Even the actors get into the game as they provide the sounds for opening and closing car doors and other effects. A veritable symphony of sound down to enhanced audience applause and a toy piano sound track for Mr. Memory’s vaudeville act. It’s one thing to design this complicated sound curtain; it’s another thing to be the guy that presses the button at precisely the right second night after night. Kudos to both of the sound guys for an excellent job!!
If you think you can put all the diverse pleasures mentioned in this review of the play into a cohesive whole, give it up. There’s too many wacky things going on to even try to explain a plot. Just let go of your cares for a couple of hours and enter the craziness. This 39 STEPS rocks!!
A WOW Factor of 9.5!