Zuzanna Szadkowski, David Ryan Smith, Carter Gill, Jesse J Perez in The 39 Steps. Photo by Bill Brymer
The 39 Steps
Adapted by Patrick Barrow
Directed by Nathan Keepers
Review by Keith Waits
Entire contents copyright © 2016 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
The subject of The 39 Steps isn’t an innocent man being chased by spies across Scotland, and it isn’t Alfred Hitchcock, although it serves as a fine pastiche of iconic Hitchcock moments. What seems to be on the mind of Patrick Barlow, adapting the 1938 movie more than John Buchan’s classic novel, is theatre itself; the nonsensical artificiality that lies at the core of the theatrical experience. It invites us to not just recognize but embrace it in uproarious celebration.
Director Nathan Keepers, now established as a favorite son at Actors Tßheatre, seems to understand this concept fully and takes a tight hold on the staging. This is my third encounter with the script, and Keepers does full justice to the text while crafting enough fresh, wholly original verbal and physical slapstick to make his 39 Steps stand apart. He also allows a handful of topical satirical jibes directed at subjects such as the current Presidential campaign that pull us entirely out of the story. Such action goes against conventional theatrical wisdom, but “the moment” in 39 Steps is never restricted to the stage but actively invites the audience into the action with an exaggerated nudge, nudge, wink, wink.
The Monty Python reference is apt, as such anarchic comic sensibility dominates the production, particularly with Carter Gill, who, in one scene, seems to be channeling Graham Chapman in drag. Gill and Jesse J. Perez are the clowns who play dozens of roles, sometimes exchanging hats and dialects within the same scene in a dizzying, virtuoso style. These roles are designed for maximum showiness and extravagance and the performances by Gil and Perez will be the most talked about part of the production.
Suzanna Szadkowski is also an adroit comic actor, even if she is only called upon to play three characters. She is far more interesting in the first two, Annabella Schmidt and Margaret, both of whom are emphatic femme fatales with dark tones. As the protagonist, Richard Hannay, David Ryan Smith is a stalwart hero and gentleman unafraid to roll around in the silliness.
There is also something interesting in the casting of Ms. Szadkowski and Mr. Smith, which is that they run counter to the conventions of casting clichés for both of these roles. They seem chosen for their skill and experience much more than whether or not they fit the physical stereotype that we typically encounter. It is a refreshing choice that only reinforces the idiosyncrasy of the material and director Keepers’ clear intention to push the play to even more absurd levels. When Gill and Szadkowski take the stage as a married Scottish couple with an overdose of tartan and long, fiery red locks, there can be doubt that we have joyously abandoned all hope of subtlety.
This is clowning of the highest order, and a highly engaging and accessible start to the new season for Actors Theatre.
The 39 Steps
August 30-September 18, 2016
Actors Theatre of Louisville
316 West Main Street
Louisville, Kentucky 40202
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of PUBLIC on WXOX-FM 97.1/ ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.