The Bristol Riverside Theatre (BRT) opened its new season with an old play that’s new again, The 39 Steps.
The story, originally from a 1915 novel by John Buchan, is a man-on-the-run adventure centered about the everyman hero Richard Hannay. A 1935 film version by Alfred Hitchcock, made while he was still in his native England, followed. Hitchcock added one of his beloved ice-cold blondes, who often turn out to be someone the everyman hero would have been better off not knowing. In 2005, the novel/film was adapted again for yet another medium, a stage comedy. In this version, there are just four actors: the hero, one woman who plays the main female roles, and two actors who fill in with what seems like up to 100 different roles. The newer version is touted as Hitchcock meets Monty Python.
A different kind of suspense
Many questions occur to me waiting for the curtain to rise. Which medium works best? Whatever happened to the British film industry? Will there be a musical theater version or a gothic version coming soon? What could make the BRT version different from other recent local productions? Doesn't comedy defeat the purpose of suspense? And do any of the answers matter, or is the purpose of community theater just to have a good time?
During the production, there are questions to be asked too: How many references to Hitchcock's movies will you see? I counted Strangers on a Train, Vertigo, North by Northwest (considered the American version of the 39 Steps), and Rear Window. Are there really just four actors performing? Who are the bad guys (the Germans pre-WWII in the play, not so obvious in the movie)? Will our hero and the woman, who keeps turning him into the police, fall in love?
What makes the play so much fun to watch — and what makes each theatrical version different —are the fast-moving scene and character changes, the set devices that enable those changes, and the physical humor, which was dominant in this production. A screen with oversized black-and-white images projected on it was used to enable the North by Northwest spin; a large empty picture frame allowed characters to climb out of windows and doors. Quick hat changes and different accents enabled other variations. Often a prop turned upright would be used in one scene, then turned sideways to convey something else in another.
All four actors were solid in their multiple roles. The lead (Matt Leisy) was sort of a Charlie Chaplin type, though I kept thinking I'd love to see a young Dick Van Dyke in this. The clowns (Dan Hodge and Adam Sowers) played well off each other, and the woman (Karen Peakes) performed her roles differently and well. The direction by Gus Kaikkonen was inventive and well-paced.
Hitchcock was known for his droll, yet macabre, sense of humor. His theme song, which begins this production, is titled The Funeral March of a Marionette. There is humor in the movie version, and the question turns out to be not whether a parody/comedy would work, but why did it take until 2005 to produce one?