The 39 Steps (SecondStory Repertory)

Posted on October 24, 2011

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The 39 Steps at SecondStory Repertory. Photo ©2011 Rob Falk

The SecondStory Repertory follows up the kickoff of it’s 13th season with The 39 Steps, a clever and fanciful fast paced comedic thriller adapted by Patrick Barlow from the John Buchan novel; though perhaps best known from the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock movie. Directed by Teresa Thuman, The 39 Steps stars Emily Cawley, Frank Lawler, James Lyle and Mark Waldstein who together aptly take on and meet the challenge of portraying over one hundred different characters throughout the play.

The story in classic Hitchcockian fashion follows the plight of unconventional hero, Richard Hannay (Lawler), whose isolated, quiet and despairing life is rudely shattered by an erroneous murder charge, compelling him to flee from the law.  Reminiscent of ‘The Fugitive’, “Saboteur” and “North by Northwest” Hannay, an innocent man, flees from authorities while seeking to clear his name by tracking down the real villains responsible for the heinous crime, preventing the smuggling of British military secrets out of the country and eventually bringing them to justice.

From the first, albeit disorienting moments of the play, the performance gathers steam and never looks back.  The audience is pulled along with Hannay on a wild romp across England and Scotland, encountering danger, intrigue and even a touch of romance at every turn.  Hannay is repeatedly confronted by a host of quirky characters remarkably all portrayed by Emily, James and Mark.

The 39 Steps at SecondStory Repertory. Photo ©2011 Rob Falk

James and Mark shine as the comic relief fully exploiting every scene they are in, wickedly self-indulging and never failing to draw laughter from the audience with their buffoonery.  The chemistry between the two was palpable, comparable to watching John Cleese and Eric Idle or Harvey Korman and Tim Conway.  One senses that they are genuinely having fun, as they transformed the stage into their own personal playground, indulging in every manner of accent, dress up or slapstick comedy, much to the delight of the audience.

Frank (the hero) and Emily (playing a multitude of different women) manage to garner their own share of laughs, as they nervously advance the romance elements of the story and indulge in their own delightful moments of physical comedy.  Two particularly memorable scenes include; one of Emily’s characters, Annabella, dying and falling across Frank’s lap, effectively trapping him in his chair and forcing him to awkwardly squirm out from underneath her without moving her and their evening spent at a roadside inn bound together by handcuffs.

The production shines in it’s entertaining simplicity and yet wonderfully creative approaches to transforming the static stage with minimalist props into exhilarating chase scenes, running through the moors, plane attacks and an impressive chase scene aboard a train; all are testimony to the talented group of actors and stage direction.

If we assume that theater is about conjuring up the illusion of life, then it is the actor’s job to breathe life into it.  They must get us to buy into their reality even at the expense of what our own eyes tell us we are seeing.  Yes, it’s mostly smoke and mirrors, half sets and pantomime motions to convey action, but the audience is a willing participant in the ruse. They want to believe.  You find yourself mesmerized by the illusions which the performance of The 39 Steps brings to life.  It’s more than just being able to see the house or inn, or the train, car or plane that is not really there; there are also the more compelling soft elements of human dreams and psyche which are brought to life.

The 39 Steps at SecondStory Repertory. Photo ©2011 Rob Falk

It is identifying with the experience and quandary of the hero and believing, if only for an hour or two that even the most self-questioning and “safe” among us can find ourselves inexplicably tossed into a life and death drama.  That we can be the hero, just as Hannay finds the hero within himself, which is more than he gave himself credit for at the beginning of the play.  Baby step by baby step, we can begin to dream again, imagining ourselves doing the impossible, like when we were young before a well-grounded adult squashed our wild imaginings.  If we like Hannay can be rise up and be the hero, then hope beyond all reasoning says that we can believe that there is a way to overcome the villain in our own story.

We go to the theater for many reasons, but mostly to escape the confines of our own lives, be entertained and if we look for it, perhaps find a way to restore our ability to dream and believe again.  To see our ideals, tarnished over the course of life, suddenly be restored and take on a new luster.  True love and romance might be found just around the corner.  That just maybe, something exciting and a touch dangerous could happen in our bland lives and we get caught up in a remarkable adventure, take on evil and come out on top….and maybe, just maybe we too, can save the day and get the girl.

Like a masterful chef, Director Teresa Thuman creates a satisfying 5-course meal of laughs by combining a dash of modest props, a sprinkle of creative stage ingenuity, a well written script, engaging story and a talented cast which is put to the test by mindboggling quick costume changes, requiring them to not only switch characters in seconds, but also their use of accents as well.  It is all part of the illusion that is theater, but the reality is that it can open our eyes to new possibilities and give us hope, which is such a needed quality these days.  It is all waiting for you in The 39 Steps, playing at the SecondStory Repertory (http://SecondStoryRep.org/) October 7-30, 2011.

Oh bugger.  It’s jolly good fun.

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