ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT
The 39 Steps was Alfred Hitchcock’s first sound movie released in 1935. For anyone under the age of 90, silent films represented a glorious age when film actors moved their lips but kept out of politics! I am familiar with the movie, so I decided to see the Riverside Theatre production of The 39 Steps, especially since there were only four people in the play. I had to wonder how they would pull this off.
My curiosity was further aroused when the audience was warned there would be fog and gunshots. A gunshot warning I can understand given the state of society these days, but a fog warning? Were they expecting people would drive into the theater?
But not to worry. This was a comedy take on the Hitchcock film (and the book his film was loosely based on). I sat in the front row of the intimate Waxlax theater for the first time so as not to miss a single second of the action, or fun, or as it turned out, in a performance that defies description!
So no, you did not need to see the 1935 Hitchcock movie first to draw a comparison. There is no comparison. In fact, if Hitchcock had been alive to see this show for himself, he would have died while everyone else was laughing.
Where to begin…
Okay, the dialogue and pace of the show is so fast you might miss something if you blink. And I guarantee you won’t want to miss a thing. Let’s begin with the plot. It incorporates every scene from the Hitchcock spy film, but in a way that John Cleese and his Monte Python co-conspirators would have carried it out. Richard Hannay (played by Dan Fenaughty) is a reserved Englishman drawn into a dangerous plot to transfer secret information to the pre-war Nazis. He meets a German woman, Annabella Schmidt (played by Jessica Mosher), who is on the run and pleads with Hannay to hide her out in his flat. She is subsequently murdered and of course Hannay is the prime suspect. So he goes on the run to avoid being charged while he tries to uncover the Nazi threat. He makes his way to Scotland looking for a mysterious (he wears an eye patch) Professor Jordan who holds the key to this plot. At the same time he is being pursued by the law. He escapes all sorts of attempts to either bring him to justice or kill him, take your pick. He finally reaches the estate of Professor Jordan only to find that Jordan himself is head of the spy ring, known as the 39 steps. Hannay escapes Jordan, the police, Jordan again, the police again, falls in love…well let’s just say it ends well for him.
Having covered plot points, the show itself is a fast-paced tour de force in which four actors play 139 different roles – that’s right – 139 characters, some of which only appear for seconds onstage! What is even more incredible is that Fenaughty only plays one role throughout the film and Mosher plays three roles. So who plays the other 135 parts? It is up to Seth Andrew Bridges and Bruce Warren, who are alternately police, spies, train conductors, newspaper hawkers, farmers, women, lamps, streetlights, etc. I was exhausted by the end of the show just watching them! For long time Saturday Night Live fans, Warren reminds me of Horatio Sans, one of the former regulars. He and Bridges do all the comedic heavy lifting and all four actors move props on and off stage throughout the play. They will all be a lot thinner by the time this show ends.
Speaking of props, over 20,000 linear feet of lumber was used to put this production together. (It took 360 hours just to load the scenery over four days.) More than 50 costumes were designed by two costume staff. They must have been in stitches. More than 200 sound cues were perfectly timed to add applause, crowd noise, airplanes, machine gun fire and birds that caused the planes to crash. Oh yes, there were dialog or sound cue references to 12 other Hitchcock films including the shower scene from Psycho.
I could go on and on about this incredible show. Fenaughty and Mosher tried their best to hold Hitchcock’s plot together, while Bridges and Warren provided 135 ways to mash it up into a Monte Python comedy. And I must say that sitting on the front row there were times I thought I was part of the production. In fact I think everyone on the front row should be credited in the program.
The 39 Steps is playing on the Waxlax Stage at Riverside through February 9. Tickets are $65 seats (general admission only in this cozy theater). Tickets can be purchased by calling the Box Office at 772-231-6990 or online at www.riversidetheatre.com.