Carrie Cook Ketterman, Pete Lay, Brian Morris & Jeff Ketterman
in The 39 Steps. Photo-Mind’s Eye Theatre Co.
The 39 Steps
Adapted by Patrick Barlow from the movie of Alfred Hitchcock
From the novel by John Buchan
From an original concept by Simon Corble & Nobby Dimon
Directed by Janet Morris
Review by Keith Waits
Entire contents copyright © 2014 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
When I saw this show on its national tour a few years ago I remember thinking it would be a perfect piece of material for a local theatre company to take on. As clever as they come, and designed to make splendid virtue out of economy and the wonder of simple stagecraft, it requires only four actors and, even when on tour, was a modestly budgeted production compared against large-scale, high-profile Broadway hits such as Wicked and Les Misreables, which might explain why there were empty seats: audiences accustomed to extravaganza didn’t feel the same enthusiasm for something built on sheer ingenuity.
Now Mind’s Eye Theatre Company has mounted their rendition, and it is good enough to convince me I was right. The story closely follows the Alfred Hitchcock film that deviated somewhat from the original novel, with dapper Englishman Richard Hannay becoming embroiled in a plot by Nazi spies to smuggle information out of England. Yet this is no straightforward tale of espionage. As conceived by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon, it becomes a platform for silliness; a spoof of the spy genre in general and Hitchcock films in particular, with references to North by Northwest, Vertigo, Rear Window, and The Birds thrown freely into the mix.
In order to ramp up the absurdity, only four actors play dozens of roles. Pete Lay plays only the hero, Hannay, who is in every scene, but he plays him with verve, an impeccable British accent, and a dashing pencil-thin mustache. Carrie Cook Ketterman portrays three women, including Margaret, whose romance with Hannay is accomplished by being forcibly handcuffed together, although I think I preferred her sharp and slinky comic turn as Annabella, the sexy German agent who gets the plot going early on. Jeff Ketterman and Brian Morris do everything else, which is to say they shift through the other several dozen characters in a dizzying series of transitions, sometimes within the same scene. The script makes such a self-conscious presentation of the artifice, with numerous exaggerated winks to the audience that include deliberately fumbled cues and line readings, that actual goofs are easily folded into the action and spirit of the thing with ease.
Not that the goofs were anything but opening night glitches. There is a lot of work apparent onstage (and off – sound and lighting design by Jeff Ketterman and Nick Dent, respectively, were expertly timed and executed) but if the cast doesn’t get in direct touch with their funny bone in a show like this, all would be lost. You just cannot take yourself too seriously trying to keep track of which funny voice goes with wig/mustache combination. You must embrace the silly, and this they do in spades.
The pacing is good, although the second act lags a bit, just missing the snap and crackle established in act one. The text front-loads most of the overt references to other Hitchcock films, so that after the intermission the exposition gets a little thicker, but some terrific bits of business are included here as well: Mr. Ketterman as an old man delivering a podium at a pace that would embarrass a snail is particularly memorable, and the finale reprises the single best bit of the show when Ketterman and Brian Morris essay stage performer Mr. Memory and his emcee with delicious superciliousness.
That the whole crazy business is put across by only four actors is a defining aspect of the premise, so I don’t understand why director Janet Morris felt it necessary to, at a very late point in the evening, momentarily include a fifth ensemble member in what, in the context of this show, seems a haphazard manner. I failed to appreciate what it accomplished that could not have been rendered with the same ingenuity that characterized the staging up until that point and it proved distracting. The climactic action between hero and villain is also changed from what I remember, but the choice made good sense for the story and felt satisfying.
I daresay that Alfred Hitchcock himself would have loved it. And it may be that only a very few will have heard of this show, and how many might imagine it a straightforward adaptation of the John Buchan novel? Any that might claim disappointment will be missing the point and missing out on the sheer fun of such smart nonsense as can be found therein. In their second production (after SPAMALOT!), Mind’s Eye Theatre Company once again have dived headlong into the deep end of silliness, and you should join them.
The 39 Steps
April 18-27, 2014 @ 8:00pm
Mind’s Eye Theatre Company
At The MeX
501 West Main Street
Louisville, KY 40202