Review: Theatre Aspen’s ’39 Steps’ thrills with its stagecraft
August 2, 2012
ASPEN – Toward the end of Theatre Aspen’s opening-night performance of “The 39 Steps,” the sound of a dog barking could be heard from just offstage. There was no dog onstage at the time, nor did any canine feature in the plot, so I did a bit of metaphorical head-scratching, wondering why the dog bark. But my puzzlement passed quickly; “The 39 Steps” doesn’t leave much time for contemplation.
I found out soon after the show ended that the dog and its barking were unscripted. A bear had been helping itself to the pizza that was going to be the crew’s dinner, and the dog was simply playing the role of a good dog, chasing off the intruder.
Which left me wondering: If the bear had actually made its way onstage during the performance, what would the audience reaction have been? My guess is that the crowd would have accepted a live bear prowling the stage as just another element of the manic-paced, eager-to-please, anything-for-a-laugh “39 Steps.”
Overlooking that a bear made no sense whatsoever in an espionage thriller set in 1930s England would have been easy. “The 39 Steps” features scores of characters, played by a cast of just four remarkably dexterous actors who change costume constantly – often onstage, sometimes in the space of one line of dialogue. There are numerous scene changes; the settings include a theater, a railroad car, an apartment, a farm, an inn. The Theatre Aspen space is notoriously small, and given all the props and scenery and costumes, if a bear had appeared onstage, my reaction would have been, How did they even find room for it?
The stage version of “The 39 Steps” premiered in 2005; it is an adaptation of the 1935 Hitchcock film. In the jump from screen to stage, the material has undergone vast changes. Where Hitchcock created a straight-up spy thriller, “The 39 Steps” has since become a comedy, with slapstick, parody, homage and farce rolled into one. It is being pitched as part Hitchcock, part Monty Python, but rather than Monty Python it is closer to Benny Hill, with a heavy element of physical burlesque and an utterly relentless pace.
Somehow, the stage version retains the script of the film nearly verbatim, and the plot is the same: In 1930s London, an ordinary man, Hannay (David Hess) meets an exotic German, Annabella Schmidt (Joan Hess), who insists she is being followed, and mentions something about “the 39 Steps” being after her. Quickly (of course: everything here happens quickly) Annabella is dead, knifed in the back. Hannay tries to solve the mystery, but he is also forced to elude the police, who believe he is the killer. Simultaneously on the run and investigating the killing, Hannay circles from the Scottish countryside back to London.
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Question: How do all the character transformations, costume changes, set switches, props, voices, lighting cues, etc., serve the story? Answer: That’s the wrong question. The nuttiness is the story. At some juncture, you realize the murder and espionage and the shadowy 39 Steps are beside the point, and you succumb to the virtuosity of the theater arts at play here, the silliness, and the sheer enormity of the effort. (For me, that point came early in Act II, when Patrick Richwood, playing a small-town politico, gives a speech in which not a single word was intelligible, but with each syllable the speech became more hilarious.)
David Hess deserves more than just critical praise; he earns a medal of valor. In his first outing as a director, he has taken on a play with a menacing number of moving parts – and the role of leading man as well. He is up to the task. Joan, his wife and co-star, gives a worthy performance in three roles (a Scottish farm wife and a stuffy English lady, as well as Annabella). Richwood is dazzling in the roles of cop, train steward, innkeeper, theater performer and on and on; Bjorn Johnson, who takes on a similar array of roles, is nearly as impressive.
“The 39 Steps” riffs some on Hitchcock – the “Psycho” stabbing music, the signature Hitchcock silhouette. But Hitchcockian suspense is not the thrill here. The thrill is stagecraft itself, placed right on the surface, impossible to miss.