September 7, 2011
A slapstick take on Hitchcock’s international espionage adventure
by Deanna Darr
Take one Alfred Hitchcock thriller inspired by a classic 1930s espionage mystery, turn it on its head and fill it with equal parts smart and silly humor, and you get The 39 Steps, Idaho Shakespeare Festival’s closing show of the 2011 season.
The result is a fun, light and humorous production that fully embraces slapstick comedy. With a cast of ISF veterans–including David Anthony Smith, Joe Conley Golden, Richard Klautsch and Kathryn Cherasaro–the minimalist staging and production is the perfect nightcap to another theater season, leaving audiences with warm and fuzzy memories that will linger as they look back.
The 39 Steps is the tale of an idle Englishman who is pulled into an international espionage adventure after a chance run-in with a mysterious woman who is murdered in his flat. He is pegged for the crime and heads off across the countryside to try and uncover the truth. That’s where the comparison to the well-loved Hitchcock thriller ends.
The four actors portray more than 100 over-the-top characters to create a tale that is far more farce than mystery. The chemistry and talent of the cast are essential to the production, and the actors’ easy rapport with the audience creates a communal atmosphere that gives the distinct feel that they’re sharing an exciting story around a campfire.
With quick, witty dialogue that is in line with the exaggerated nature of film noir, the actors have their hands full, but it’s all the more fun for the audience.
Anyone who saw ISF’s 2010 season closer, The Woman in Black, will likely feel a sense of deja vu when they see The 39 Steps’ minimalist set, which uses structural metal elements to outline the world of the play. While the simplest props form a door frame, a set of wooden boxes, ladders and window molding are catalysts for the audience’s imagination, letting each person fill in the blanks with guidance from the cast. It’s a wonderful example of how a strong script and good actors can be enough to weave a well-told tale.
But if there were an award given for the best use of box fans and a fog machine, this production would be the hands-down winner. A full wall of fans forms the back of the set and not only helps move the comically copious amounts of fog around, but is easily transformed into a plethora of objects thanks to some creative and effective lighting design.
The 39 Steps is a laugh-out-loud production and it seems clear that this play is as much fun for the cast and crew as it is for the audience