The 39 Steps, adapted by Patrick Barlow from the novel by John Buchan and from the movie by Alfred Hitchcock. Directed by Jonathan Croy.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"But. . .how can you warn steps?"
When autumn comes around the almost monochromatic world bursts into brilliant flaming color filling our senses with the overwhelming joy of nature’s miracles. It is short-lived, however, and when the leaves begin to fade and drop away into piles on the ground our psyches require new stimulation. That’s where Shakespeare and Company comes into the picture. Each year at this time they give us horror, or mystery or something fascinating to woo us back into the wonders of the world.
This year it is "The 39 Steps" directed by that master farceur, Jonathan Croy. Croy has taken the slight spoof play and turned it into a non-stop flight of hilarity with intermission being the only moment of let-up following the dry introduction when Richard Hannay introduces himself as temporary narrator and derives his only pleasure from chatting up his extreme level of boredom. But from his first little joke in that speech, the game is afoot and the humor is cascading forth.
Croy has a masterful team of Shakes and Co regulars, a foursome who play thirty-two characters in just a bit over two hours. Each is unique and different and sometimes - a "times" that often takes place in a Croy production - on stage character shifts take place with accent, posture and costume having been altered before our eyes and it doesn’t matter a whit. If, on rare occasions, one of these switches inspires laughter from one actor over the efforts of another, even that doesn’t break the spell of the work. There is such camaraderie among these folks you might suspect they don’t even realize we’re watching them.
Jason Asprey plays Richard Hannay, the hapless Englishman recently returned from a long sojourn in Canada, whose boredom takes him to a theater where he is found by an exotic spy who drags him into an adventure never to be forgotten. Asprey plays this role with a dry, quasi-sardonic point of view. He almost snarls when things get tough, but his character is one of those men for whom the tough get going at such instances, and he does just that. In his Harris Tweed beige he squeezes himself away from a murder, leaps over fast-moving train cars in spite of the wind, delivers impromptu lectures and deludes a young woman with his exemplary exploits in crime, all while never rumpling his suit. Asprey is so very believable in this role that even his belief in the beauty of his moustache is charming and disarming. He is also both funny and the constant foil for the other comics in the piece. It’s a lovely performance.
Elizabeth Aspenlieder is both believable and beautiful, all the while being both 1930s arch and 1930s simple while straightening up her spine to be 1930s British, a tribute to all three genres. As Margaret McTyte she completely snaps us into place with her simple country-girl delights, coy and simple while being seductive and silly, full of herself but without a gushiness that could be cloying. As Pamela Edwards she pulls of the near-impossible, making a romantic heroine genuinely funny and reprehensible at the same time. We want to like Pamela but it is hard in this play for she fights Hannay’s realities for a long time. Aspenlieder has us rooting for her from the first encounter. And she is funny with handcuffs on or off.
However, it is her first character that is the absolute winner for comedy. Annabella Schmidt, a spy, is both a beautiful femme fatale and an extraordinary murderer of language and meaning. She gets you laughing instantly and then manages to sustain it for a long, long while. I can’t remember when the word "stop" could take on so many meanings and create so many misunderstandings. Aspenlieder is a past mistress of farcical comedy, both verbal and physical, and in this role, and the other two, she exhibits her talents to their fullest.
David Joseph does and says so many wonderfully foolish things in this play that at times I could swear he was two people at the same time. His Mr. Memory is a swami-headed entertainer who definitely entertains. His Willie MacGarrigle is a host of no little authority and not small beard. His Mrs. Louisa Jordan is an extraordinary gangster slut whose equal has never been seen on our local stages. Even his radio announcers come across the airwaves as totally conceived and completely right.
Josh Aaron McCabe is a wonder in this world of Hitchcock and Buchan. He has a remarkable way with cats, an incredible incentive in selling newspapers, a remarkably innocent way with women’s underwear, and a sensitive side as Mrs. MacGarrigle, the woman who shelters Hannay and Pamela for a night. When he and Joseph play police plane pilots they are totally in their metier. McCabe has a wonderful facility for voices and several times in this play he is called upon to converse with more than one other, unseen character and though we clearly see and know that he is every voice, it doesn’t matter because he does it so well and makes it funny at the same time.
What the director has done with this play and these actors is to create a world like none other. He visually squeezes high physical comedy into a chase scene on the top of a moving train. He enhances the moments with unexpected changes, putting kilts on the sheriff and then giving him a chance to totally bend Hannay’s mind with his apparel, or requiring Hannay and Pamela to traverse a stile over and over until they can get it right. How he sees this world seems to be as a Ronson lighter in a pitch-black landscape. He illuminates everything for ten feet around and lets us see that brighter side of the darkness through the eyes of a gentle, comic mime.
The special work of the two person stage crew, Stefan Serkin and Tizzy Thwaites, provides them with an opportunity for a curtain call with the acting corps and they deserve it as they constantly create and recreate the set design of director Croy. They are aided in their work by the lighting design of Stephen Ball who provides just what is needed most of the time. Mary Readlinger’s costumes are perfect for each character shift while Michael Pfeiffer’s sound design is very good, but not always what I’d like. He loses, in particular, on my favorite moment in the film and in most productions I’ve seen of this show, the transition from Hannay’s apartment to the train for Scotland.
If you need that mood changer from the devastation of autumn’s demise, this is just the ticket. Even if you don’t laugh as I did, you will laugh, you will enjoy and - if you don’t know the story having never seen the film - the plot will engage you from start to finish. (If you do know the movie, you still won’t be disappointed for nothing has been neglected in this parody of the Hitchcock vision.) I encourage you to rush to the box office for this one. It won’t be around forever and no other edition of the play will ever do what this one does this well.
Jason Asprey and Elizabeth Aspenlieder as Annabella; photo: Kevin Sprague
Aspenlieder as lMargaret and Jason Asprey as Hannay; photo: Kevin Sprague
Josh Aaron McCabe and David Joseph as the MacGarrigles and Aspenlieder as Pamela; photo: Kevin Sprague
The 39 Steps plays through November 4 on a very odd schedule at the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre at Shakespeare and Company, located at 70 Kemble Street, Lenox, MA. For information and tickets go on line at www.shakespeare.org or call the box office at 413-637-3353.