The 39 Steps, a spoof of the classic Alfred Hitchcock film of the same name, is zanily smart fun at Weathervane Community Playhouse.
As director Marc Moritz says in his playbill notes, you don’t have to know the original film to enjoy the play’s multiple references to Hitchcock’s works, or to immerse yourself in this satirical take on the “cheesy” film noir genre.
You might as well pass the Cheez Whiz at this spy thriller extravaganza, which has leading man Richard Worswick and his numerous love interests (all portrayed by Bridget Chebo) playing it straight, while the fantastic Scott Davis and Brian Jackson practically fall over themselves in their over-the-top antics as Clown 1 and Clown 2, who together play more than 140 roles.
All of this amounts to a whole lot of fun and many delightful surprises on stage. We’re continuously reminded that the magic of live theater is what makes this satire by playwright Patrick Barlow so great, including nutty shadow puppetry, lightning-quick costume changes/character transformations right before our eyes, and even the “appearance” of Hitchcock himself, juxtaposed with one of the crazier moments in this story’s manhunt.
The 1939 movie follows the story of jaded Richard Hannay, the ever-so-handsome hero in 1935 London who decides he wants to do something mindless — like go to the theater. There he runs into a spy, a femme fatale type named Annabella, who winds up dead by the end of the night. Hannay goes on the run, traversing Great Britain in an effort to stop an underground organization called The 39 Steps from stealing a national secret of utmost importance. (Never mind that we don’t really understand what the secret is. That’s totally secondary to all the shenanigans going on in this whodunit.)
Worswick’s suave Hannay defies death multiple times, and even pauses to admire his own handsomeness, which is widely reported as news of his manhunt escalates. Worswick is fearless as his character rolls around the floor to escape shots from airplanes above and enacts a chase on top of a train — a priceless scene that needs only strategically arranged trunks and excellent acting to be vividly imaginative.
The show’s brilliantly simple staging plays with our perspective over and over, from the two clowns holding a frame to represent a window to a railroad trestle composed of two adjoined ladders. This comedy lovingly pokes fun at the theater by having its characters call out for props and by incorporating purposefully mistimed sound cues.
The 39 Steps originated in West Yorkshire, England, in 2005, transferring to London in 2006 and premiering on Broadway in 2008, where it won Tony Awards for lighting and sound design. It ran two years on Broadway before transferring to an off-Broadway house, closing in January 2011.
At Weathervane, Davis and Jackson deserve awards for keeping their many characterizations distinct and consistent, right down to their accents. Among their many ridiculous roles is Jackson’s moment as a cow being milked and a nutty bit on the train as he switches from a cop to a conductor and back repeatedly.
Not to be outdone, Davis shines when he’s wearing a curly old lady wig and long plaid skirt. Just when you think his lightning-quick changes are as crazy as they can be, he takes them to new heights. When he shows up onstage with the mixed-up combination of a man’s suit and the old lady wig under a man’s hat, we know we’re in for a preposterously good time.
The audience loves being in on the joke as the stage magic is laid bare, with Davis making no attempt to hide the fact that he’s holding his lady’s wig in his hands after transforming into a male character onstage.
Worswick and Chebo are wonderfully melodramatic as Hannay and his love interests, bringing to life multiple love-hate relationships and the requisite sexual tension between leading man and lady.
On opening night, some of the show’s pacing was awkward in the first act, including some odd lulls. That issue has probably already worked itself out by now in this complex show, where perfect comedic timing and a pell-mell pace are crucial.
Sight gags range from a character wrestling with a man-sized puppet to a fetching farm wife constantly skipping. Director Moritz has outdone himself with all of this show’s hilarious touches, both big and small, creating an evening of seriously funny entertainment.
Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.