The 39 Steps, hilarity with a side of espionage

Farce in a Hitchcock masterpiece

PHOTO BY GUS GORDON
Travis Wiggins, Mary Young, Mike Krcil and Johnny Molson star in The 39 Steps, a spoof of a Hitchcock thriller continuing May 3-5 at the Hoogland Center for the Arts.

The 39 Steps is a fast-paced, funny stage parody of the classic novel by John Buchan and the subsequent Alfred Hitchcock film. The spy-thriller plot points are all there but the vibe has been replaced with a frantic commedia dell'arte, a theatrical form characterized by improvised dialogue and a cast of colorful characters.

Set in 1935, four actors play more than 140 characters, delivering lines and changing accents, costumes and wigs at breakneck speeds. Director Rich McCoy has engaged four of our finest (and funniest) local actors to create an ensemble that plays together like a perfect string quartet.

"It's one of the funniest things I've seen on stage, but there are moments that are really tricky," said McCoy. "It requires split-second timing to make it funny. It's got to be animated, and it has to be funky. The actors have to look beyond the script for the true humor," he said. I enjoyed every madcap moment of the tech week rehearsal performance I was permitted to watch."

The show starts with a wink and a nod when the main character, a dashing Brit named Richard Hannay – played expertly by Mike Krcil – bemoans for "something mindless and trivial, something utterly pointless," so he goes to the theater. And here we all are.

Almost immediately Hannay becomes tangled in a web of secret agents and mayhem. He navigates through a series of perilous situations that find him running from the police in Scotland where he jumps from trains, assumes false identities and meets a prototypical Hitchcockian blonde named Pamela, played by the endearing Mary Young. She also plays many (but not all) of the show's other female characters. Pamela and Richard delve into a will-they-or-won't-they romance plot that Young and Krcil's charm and wit make a true joy to watch.

Travis Wiggins and Johnny Molson round out the cast as the other 100-or-so personalities. These two are billed as "the clowns," and if Bozo and Ronald McDonald could also speak with five different Scottish accents, they would be aptly named. Wiggins and Molson manage to embody five to six characters within the same scene, tossing wigs and coats offstage and to each other like circus jugglers. (There are so many quick changes, dressers are needed on both sides for the entirety of the show – Suellen Morgan, who also designed the period-perfect costumes, and dresser René Blank do a fantastic job.)

The physical comedy and staging of the show are its greatest strengths. The cast leaning to-and-fro as passengers on a train or making us believe they're dangling from a bridge are impressive acting feats. The set, also designed by director McCoy, utilizes simple furniture props to allow the actors to tell the story through a litany of body movements, accents and ever-changing facial expressions.

The beauty of this chaos is that even a slip-up – an actor briefly getting the giggles or a ham sandwich being a bit of Styrofoam – feels entirely in keeping with the seat-of-your-pants nature of the show. Only afterward did I realize some of their lines were improvised, the actors playing off of each other's natural comedic talent during a low-stakes, late-night rehearsal with an audience of one.

Prepping to play so many characters is a harrowing experience, and not one the cast took lightly. Young enlisted the help of a dialect coach. She explained, "It's going quickly from one accent to the next and trying not to get confused. I focused on each character and made a lot of notes in my script."

Wiggins, whose favorite part of his role is the mid-scene character switches, "located each character in a tree of stock archetype characters" to give each of them their own unique identity. Molson said he "watched Hanna-Barbera cartoons" to help him prepare.

Whatever methods they used to get there, they succeeded. The four of them run together like a well-oiled slapstick comedy machine. Hitchcock fans will be delighted by the references to his work, and if you're not familiar with him, it won't detract. Definitely check out this hilarious whirlwind of a show; you'll leave grinning ear to ear.

Courtney Wick is active in the area theater scene. Most recently, she wrote and directed the murder-mystery comedy Nightmare at the Hot Mess Hair Salon, a follow-up to her previous production, Nightmare at the Sweet Dreams Inn.

Courtney Wick

Courtney Wick is active in the area theater scene. Most recently, she wrote and directed the murder-mystery comedy “Nightmare at the Hot Mess Hair Salon,” a follow-up to her previous production, “Nightmare at the Sweet Dreams Inn.”

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