You’ve got to hand it to the teams behind the curtain and in front of it at Bluebarn for making The 39 Steps step so lively that you may need to catch your breath. And wonder how the four-person cast doesn’t huff and puff while bringing the house down in this wild and crazy circus, directed by Susan Clement-Toberer.
Circus indeed. Two performers are program-listed as Clowns. And that certainly fits their non-stop stomping, romping, and jumping, punctuated by costume and character changes that must have kept the wardrobe department hopping. Add to them two more equally astounding performers who keep pace in this dizzy go-round.
Just to refresh your memory, this is Patrick Barlow’s send up of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film derived from a 1915 novel by John Buchan. It attempts to replicate every major scene and development in the movie through parody, with a four-person cast whose very size is part of the comedy.
The MacGuffin is cousin to other Hitchcockiness: e.g., The Wrong Man, North by Northwest in which an innocent chap gets trapped in a perilous situation which he didn’t create. In this instance, Canadian Richard Hannay, at a London theatre, accidentally encounters a mysterious woman who, after telling him of a nefarious espionage plot involving a group called The 39 Steps, is stabbed in the back when his is turned. Accused of the murder, he flees, determined to learn how her death may be connected to that evil group. He spends much of the rest of the time in and out of scrapes in Scotland, in company with a lady named Pamela, encountering people who wish him ill. Note references to the Master Race in this race across time and place.
The cascading scenes and the devices to portray them with deliberately minimal means provide non-stop physical fun; a theatre, his flat, a speeding train compartment followed by a chase on the train roof, under a train bridge, a Scottish farm, a dark moor, rocks and rills, a country estate, with a wild party underway, a car bouncing along a country road, a political party meeting, a country inn front desk and bedroom. Encounters with vaudeville performers, sinister men, traveling salesmen who handle lady’s undergarments, police, detectives, a garrulous Scottish farmer and his lusty wife, a life-threatening professor missing a digit, members of a Scottish political party, a bunch of highland dancers, two innkeepers, sheep. Someone used multiple digits to count up this crowd of characters. Evidently 150 or so flash by.
The visual fun keeps on coming especially the train-roof pursuit, an airplane chase where Hanney transforms into King Kong, painless escapes through pane-less windows, and perfectly-timed quartet-choreography in the bouncing car. Credit Clement-Toberer for these especially wonderful effects as well as the zippy uproarious pace.
The colorful panoply of wigs and costumes from Kendra Newby becomes a show in itself, including lavish cross-dresses for ladies. Martin Marchitto devised great multiple scenic delights, amid which the cast uses Amy Reiner’s wonderful minimal props for funny multiple transformations. This includes a handful of puppets; the one in the red dressing gown could never be called a flop. Shea Saladee’s lighting effects delightfully suggest film noir effects.
Amid all this physical delight, actors Ben Beck, Kirsten Kluver, Bill Grennan and Ablan Roblan, never cease to stay amazing in all the frenzy (Hitchcock title, of course; there are several references to notorious others unreeling as you may have a suspicion). Beck stands out as the rarely flappable Hanney, as if, being Canadian, he vows to be British and not some Frenchie from Quebec. He superbly maintains that aplomb through thicket and fen.
The other three tend to pull out the stops most of the time, as if Clement–Toberer prefers to gild the lily rather than let the premise bloom on its own through earnestly sending up British style. For instance, when Hanney encounters a Scottish farmer and his wife, whose dialect and accents could cause the fugitive to wonder what the divil they’re sayin’, Grennan and Kluver’s verbalizing could leave everyone scratching their follicles.
Fast-paced, high-volume line delivery regularly blurred plot dialogue when I attended. Possibly laugh-evoking speeches could have stood better on their own otherwise. Further muddied by competing with frequent music cues. Action speaking louder than words.
The non-visible people running all that stuff and nonsense backstage deserve multiple hip hip hoorays for their many contributions, likewise keeping this well-oiled, perfectly timed vehicle running at top speed.
I say, quite a ride. What?
The 39 Steps runs amok through December 17, Bluebarn Theatre, 1106 S. 10th Street. Weds: Dec.6, & 13, Thurs. Fri. Sat: 7:30p.m. Sun. Nov. 26, Dec.3: 2 p.m. Dec. 17 2 & 6 p.m. Tickets: $25-$30. www.bluebarn.org