Friday, February 10, 2017

Cloverdale Playhouse: The 39 Steps"

Disclosure: The reviewer is a member of the Board of Directors of The Cloverdale Playhouse.

Back in 1995, when four actors first took the stage to play countless roles in The 39 Steps, who knew it would become so popular? Based on John Buchan's 1915 novel and Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 film of the same name, Patrick Barlow's 2005 award-winning adaptation is currently opening The Cloverdale Playhouse's 6th Season. -- While Hitchcock took many liberties with Buchan's book, adding a trademark "blonde woman" to the cast of characters and showcasing his recognizable style that mixes suspense with sophisticated humor, Barlow takes it many steps further by turning it into a parody-melodrama.

The convoluted plot revolves around Richard Hannay [Tate Pollock], a man who is "tired of life" but gets drawn into intrigues involving a plot to smuggle military secrets out of Great Britain as World War II threatens, all the while trying to clear himself of a suspicion of murder. His adventures take him from London to Scotland and back again, meeting an assortment of women, music-hall entertainers, farmers, innkeepers, law enforcement officials, etc. all of whom are played by three actors: Sarah Atkins plays most of the women, and two Clowns [Shane Murphy and Cushing Phillips] play the too-many-to-count  catalogue of male and female characters who help or hinder Hannay along the way.

And what a rollicking two-hour trip it is, played on a makeshift Music Hall stage with an array of set pieces, props, and signs that the cast manipulate efficiently [and in some cases with intentional mistakes].

Director Sarah Walker Thornton has an extra-high-energy cast of veteran actors at her disposal, and keeps the action moving at a sometimes frenetic pace while capitalizing on the many gags in Barlow's script that reference several Hitchcock films [Rear Window, North by Northwest,  and The Birds to name a few]. -- Her bare-bones production and the skills of her actors make much of a seat-of-their-pants style that belies a strict discipline that each one brings to the stage.

On opening night, much of the dialogue was delivered with so much gusto as to render some lines almost unintelligible and to register many scenes at the same high volume and energy level. Once they settle down, this gifted ensemble acting company should provide a real roller-coaster ride with peaks and valleys that afford them and their audiences with consistent moments of glee and an occasional moment to breathe.

This notwithstanding, there is a lot to applaud in this production. -- Mr. Pollock ingratiates himself in a narrative introduction, and proves himself as Hannay: stiff upper lip well in control, ironic comments delivered with aplomb, a disinterest in romance that gets the better of him, and an ability to meet each dire circumstance with a sense of self-deprecating humor.

As the significant women in Hannay's life, Ms. Atkins differentiates each one with costume and wig disguises provided by Danny Davidson-Cline [and crew], specific dialect accents and behaviors particular to Anabella (a Teutonic spy), Margaret (a Scottish farmer's sweetly sympathetic wife), and Pamela (a spunky uncooperative hostage who at first believes Hannay is guilty of murder, and eventually trusts and falls in love with him).

Most of the broad humor comes from the two Clowns. Mr. Murphy and Mr. Phillips are so adept at quickly switching characters between scenes [and even within scenes], distinguishing each one with a mere change of a hat, a thick accent, or a change in posture. One would almost think there were several more actors in the cast, except the conceit of the play is that there are only the four of them.

And what appears to be an improvizational romp with plenty of giggles and belly-laughs, is actually a finely tuned production in expert hands.