The 39 Steps, by Patrick Barlow, adapted from the novel by John Buchan and the Alfred Hitchcock film and an original concept by Nobby Dimon and Simon Corble. Directed by Nathan Stith. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
(l-r) Patrick Ellison Shea, Natalie Wilder, Peter Langstaff, Jim Staudt; photo: Erika Floriani
"...but if I tell you, you will be inwolved."
For a film-fan the work of Alfred Hitchcock has an almost sacred aspect. He was the master at films of intrigue and suspense. From his earliest work through his final films no one had quite the same touch as Hitch. No one presented more tiny horror with a touch of the sardonic than this chubby English film director. The 39 Steps is one of his classic works and it isn't exactly the movie you reach for when you want a lot of laughs even though many of the situations that the hero, Richard Hannay, finds himself in are enjoyable, even laughable. But there is one moment that never fails to get a roar of insane laughter from an audience. It never fails.
Hannay has left his flat with a murdered woman in it, a knife sticking out of her back. He is heading for Scotland by train. His char-woman comes in to clean and find the body and she opens her mouth to scream but what comes out is the loud, sharp whistle of a train leaving the station. This never fails to get a laugh and it is, seemingly, the premise for the stage edition of this classic thriller. By the time we get to this moment in the play, now on stage in a delicious production at Oldcastle Theatre in Bennington, Vermont, we have already been set up to laugh. The play has been funny for minutes and minutes and will only get funnier as it goes along, but this classic moment of Hitchcock humor is still one of the best visual/aural jokes in all of entertainment.
Director Nathan Stith has brought even more high comedy into the mix than I've seen before in other productions. With it he has mixed in as much low comedy as he can add without taking us out of the Hitchcock parody that is this version. In just under two hours, roughly the length of the movie, four actors play all the roles in the film including traveling salesman on a train, fake police, real police, society matrons, evil geniuses, villainous professors, moral Scotsmen, immoral women, silly landladies, Vaudeville performers, one unhappy blonde lass and the afore-mentioned Richard Hannay. This group of actors takes your breath away while you laugh and laugh and laugh and glory in their quick timing, their many character and costume changes and their fabulous accents.
Hannay is played by Peter Langstaff, the only actor who remains inside one character for the entire play. Langstaff does befuddlement brilliantly. He is also adept at comical reactions and horrified insights. He plays moments of revelation as though the author here was Eugene O'Neill and the endgame is all the funnier for it: sincerity breeds confusion and results in amused laughter.
Natalie Wilder divides herself in three parts. Initially she is the spy turned siren Annabella Schmidt. She transforms into "lady on the train" - a girl named Pamela, then into Margaret, Scot farm-wife with an erotic ambition, and finally into the woman Pamela whose initial betrayal of Hannay turns ultimately into British lust, which is barely lust at all. Wilder is a perfect Annabella, using her feminine wiles to get her way. She is a charming,be-braided Margaret whose innocence is underlined with passion and a sense of adventure. Ultimately she is the chilling, icy-veined British princess-without-a-title, the Madeleine Carroll of the film. In every role she reaches instant perfection and her characters are all different and appealing, each in her own Hitchcockian way.
The two Clowns are played by Patrick Ellison Shea (meatier) and Jim Staudt (leaner) who play everyone else, often changing roles on-stage in an instant to conduct meaningful conversations and physical interplay with themselves. These two actors and their director have concocted some of the silliest and genuinely funniest moments in the show. As good as they are at manipulating their bodies into contorted images, they are equally wonderful with their voices and their accents, from light German to deep Scots to British regularity they change everything they do to suit the role they undertake at any given point in the script. If the play belongs to anyone it is to these two men, not the stars - good as they are. This mini-ensemble of players is really what this show is about and no one can object to watching the magic created on stage by Shea and Staudt. When things seem about to be impossible Stith and his players present us with the improbable made real and we have to love it because it's not even a choice to think otherwise.
Richard Howe's set is fluid and flexible as needed. Ursula McCarty's costumes are period perfect and film parody pleasing. David V. Groupe's lighting gives each scene and each mood change in each scene its scenic wonderment. Cory Wheat's sound, music and effects are all just right, and even better for this edition of the film story when they're a second late or a second early.
This is my third production of this show and it is by far the best I've seen. The company and the company that keeps them really deliver the laughs in this outing and it's one good reason to start your car and head to the biggest little theater in the smallest big city in southern Vermont before its too late. You don't want to miss this one.
The 39 Steps plays at Oldcastle Theatre, 331 Main Street, Bennington, VT through June 19. For information and tickets go to their website at www.oldcastletheatre.org or call the box office at 802-447-0564.