Tuesday, January 31, 2012

ASF: "The 39 Steps"

Jen Nelson Lane has her hands (ears & eyes) full as Stage Manager for the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's farcical rendering of The 39 Steps, Patrick Barlow's adaptation of John Buchan's 1915 novel and the now-classic 1935 film by Alfred Hitchcock based on it. -- With upwards of 1000 sound and lighting cues coming at breakneck speed, Ms. Lane's spot-on timing and crisp delivery of them in tandem with director Nancy Rominger's expert actors makes the production an entertaining and sometimes silly [a la Monty Python] diversion.

Since its debut in England in 2005, the play has been delighting audiences on both sides of the Atlantic, winning Olivier-Drama Desk-and Tony Awards, having long-runs in both London's West End and New York's Broadway, and recently reaching the community, university, and even high school circuits.

Bookended in short narrative scenes by the play's protagonist Richard Hannay, the story s a familiar old-fashioned spy-thriller in which an unsuspecting innocent is on the run and must clear his name as a suspected murderer while simultaneously attempting to save the world by thwarting a sinister plot to smuggle military secrets out of the country and into the hands of the enemy.

Hannay gets into and out of numerous scrapes with a large catalogue of characters: music hall entertainers (especially a Mr. Memory), the law, the outlaws, assorted innkeepers, farmers, et al., as he travels to Scotland in search of a Professor Jordan, a man who could resolve his dilemma. -- [Though the novel did not provide one, Hitchcock provided a "blonde woman" (one of Hitch's favorite characters) to enhance the adventure, and this is retained in the stage production.]

The conceit here is that all the characters in The 39 Steps are played by a total of four actors: Hannay [Peter Simon Hilton: welcome back again from last season], three women Hannay meets [Vanessa Morosco in her debut with ASF], and two "Clowns" [Brik Berkes: also in a welcome return from last season, and newcomer to ASF Louis Butelli] who play all the other roles, male and female, and who must change character quickly/instantly, sometimes more than once in a given scene.

As played on Peter Hicks's "bare" music hall stage, with plenty of props, furniture, and door/window frames that are used in various & inventive ways throughout (doing double-duty at times), with Jacob Sullivan's authentic & creative sound effects, and with Brent Rominger's clever period sounding & recognizable spy-genre score, the director has a field day maneuvering her actors from place to place and from character to character, challenging them and the design & technical crew to keep the pace and the sophisticated humor of the story. And the text even has several references to other Hitchcock films -- Rear Window, Vertigo, North by Northwest -- and even the British exclamation "Bob's your uncle" has its place.

Mr. Hilton plays Hannay as a debonair sort and a man "tired of life" who drags himself to the London Palladium to see Mr. Memory, a man with encyclopedic knowledge, and where he is confronted by Annabella Schmidt: Ms. Morosceo plays her as a a mysterious and sultry secret agent with a pronounced Teutonic accent. When she is stabbed in the back clasping a map of Scotland, sometime after telling him that military secrets are going to be smuggled out of the country, enigmatically referring to "the 39 steps", and to beware of a man with one joint missing from a finger, Hannay begins his adventure.

En route to Scotland on a train [inventively crafted out of steamer trunks] the newspapers report that Hannay is the chief suspect in Anabella's murder. To avoid capture by train inspectors, Hannay finds himself in a compartment with Pamela [Ms. Morosco again in a recurring role as a feisty foil to Hannay] whom he kisses as a distraction, but she gives him up...and he then escapes on the Firth of Forth Bridge, finding refuge temporarily with an old man and his young wife Margaret [here Ms. Morosco plays her as an unspoiled and generous woman who helps Hannay escape through the "Rear Window" of their cottage].

Eventually finding the professor, he sees one joint missing from a finger and is then a target himself, remarkably surviving, getting back to London with Pamela after an overnight stop in a hotel where she discovers Hannay is telling the truth, and winding up back at the Palladium where he figures out that Mr. Memory can solve the riddle of "the 39 steps"...a complex military formula.

While the plot gets more convoluted at every turn, the actors meet all its challenges head on. Mr. Hilton shows Hannay to be resourceful, clever, and sardonic as he meets each obstacle and confronts all antagonists with sophisticated elan, hardly ever getting ruffled, and allowing a sense of humor to grace his action. -- Ms. Morosco distinguishes each of her three roles so well that one hardly knows it is the same actress; and while Annabella and Margaret appear only briefly, they make an impression; but Pamela is Hannay's equal in spunk & wit, and winds up being a fine romantic match for the confirmed bachelor.

Arguably the best comic moments -- and there are many of them in this two act/two hour production -- are reserved for Messrs. Butelli and Berkes, as they change costume quickly off-stage or right before our eyes, becoming a wide assortment of eccentrics, policemen & thugs, music hall entertainers, silly old men & women, hotel keepers, etc. -- with over-the-top Scottish accents much of the time. And each one is clearly defined by a gesture, a posture, a mannerism, a vocal texture, or an attitude that makes them distinct...exceptional performances. -- And, let's face it, they move the plot better than any narrative could. They get quite a workout here, much to the audience's pleasure.

Though there are a few stage "bits" that are somewhat indulgent, and the Pythonesque humor is an aquired taste, The 39 Steps is just the right antidote for the winter blues.