THEATER REVIEW: ‘THE 39 STEPS’
Hitchcock mystery riff provides laughs at Cardinal Stage show
By Doris LynchSpecial to the H-T
November 6, 2012,
The projected round silhouette of Alfred Hitchcock floats across a screen halfway through Cardinal Stage’s “The 39 Steps” as homage or perhaps a kind of blessing. At Friday night’s preview, director Randy White, his cast and nimble production crew created a fast-moving, ever-changing panoply of humorous delights.
Handsome, upper-crust bachelor Richard Hannay (Chris Vettel) suffers ennui after returning to his apartment after a long trip. Vettel with his sonorous British accent and unruffled manner easily slips inside the role of a man who has spent his life centered only upon his own wants and needs. But, alas, fate abruptly alters this life-trajectory when beautiful secret agent Annabella Schmidt (Nika Ericson) joins him in an opera box.
Played with bravura and an eager demeanor by Mike Price, Mr. Memory rattles off answers to trivia and with each correct response (all of them) raises his arm bombastically as a salute. A pistol shot reverberates through the London Palladium, and Hannay’s life on the run soon begins.
Vettel does a fine job as Hannay, but he has the advantage of playing only one character all evening. The three other actors must switch between roles all night, sometimes at dizzying speeds. They succeed well at this difficult task. Kudos to costume designer, Christy Clark, and dresser, Taylor Harmon, who facilitated fast wardrobe changes in costumes that capture London and Scotland during the early 20th century.
Secret Agent Annabella Schmidt, sexy and bold, spends the night at Hannay’s place, but greets him in the morning with a surprise — a knife sticking out from her dressing gown.
Ericson, in a series of grunts, pulls off a secrets-revealing death scene that is immediately countered by Vettel who hilariously pythons out of his easy chair because alas, Annabella, has died in his lap. The night is full of amusing slapstick including one superfast exchange of hats (and characters) on the train to Scotland. Visually, the play turns cinematic with pulsing lights and a ladder climb that makes the audience believe they are observing a rapid chase across a moving train’s roof.
As the villain with a missing-part-of-a-digit, Professor (of course!) Jordan, Paul Hansen reeks of evil — threatening to kill our hero Hannay, as a twenties’ party blasts in the next room. Price, who besides switching among characters, designed the sound to fine effect here, with party sounds turning on and off each time the Professor’s door opened or closed.
All the accents were managed well, Vettel’s always spot-on, and Ericson also did particularly well with a sassy spy’s heavy Eastern European accent, followed by a country wife’s thick Scottish brogue, to a London lady’s proper English.
Of course, what would a Hitchcock mystery be without a love story? Or perhaps a couple of them? Hannay shares an intimate chat with the country wife, who warns him to escape and gives him her own husband’s coat with its hymnbook in the pocket. And a chance encounter on the train leads to a long kiss with Pamela who appears later literally attached to Hannay’s wrist.
At an inn where the owners promise to keep mum about your secrets, Price and Hansen hilariously play a married couple, one nearly taciturn, the other extremely garrulous. In his third or fourth role as a woman (who can keep track?), Price elicits laughs as the wife who needs to be translated for the uncomprehending Brits.
In a Scottish band scene after a political rally, White employs the rear projector again to good effect.
My one caveat with the play was that sometimes the darkness was too encompassing and created several moments of confusion, but certainly it gave the feel of Scottish moors during an escape.
For a delightful evening of escape, go see this Cardinal production. While laughing hard, you’ll enjoy trying to solve a complicated mystery.
Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps
Adapted by Patrick Harlow fr. the novel by John Buchan and fr. the film by Alfred Hitchcock
By George Walker for WFIU
November 6, 2012
The 39 Steps is a wonderful early Hitchcock thriller, one of his ‘innocent man on the run’ epics. The film simply crackles with tension as it draws you into the plot with a race against spies and a burgeoning romance. The Cardinal Stage Company’s performance at the Ivy Tech John Waldron Arts Center of Patrick Harlow’s adaptation for four actors crackles as well, but it’s with lots of hearty laughter.
Actor Chris Vettel, who played Professor Higgins in Cardinal’s My Fair Lady, is back to play another Englishman, the bored young engineer Richard Hannay. It’s a demanding role because even though he plays only one character, he’s on stage for the entire show.
New to area audiences is Nika Ericson. Ericson appears briefly as the enigmatically romantic German accented spy Annabella Schmidt who chooses Hannay to aid her, as Margaret the innocent Scots brogue spouting lass smitten by Hannay, and as the considerably more resistant upper crust English accented woman Pamela.
Rounding out the cast are Paul Hansen, who appeared in Cardinal’s Bill W. and Doctor Bob, and Cardinal veteran Mike Price. Between the two of them they play all the other fifty or so roles, male and female, in the show.
This comical account of The 39 Steps is still a complex thriller. Hansen and Price playing a conductor, a news boy, a policeman and a couple of other fellows at a rail way station switch hats, characters and accents so fast that I thought I was listening to a fugue. The staging of Richard Hannay’s flight from the moving train and the jump off the Forth Bridge is reenacted in a nail biting scene. It’s complete with dramatic sounds, flashing lights and an imagination satisfying effort with just a set of step ladders.
Other scenes are just for very satisfying laughs. Richard and Pamela’s attempt to get over a fence while handcuffed lead to one funny geometric gaff after another. I can’t imagine how they could remember all the pieces of that puzzle. And there’s a protracting scene between them that leads to the most comical kiss I’ve seen on stage.
Christ Vettel is quite perfect as the initially bored, and then energized, then terrified, then amused, then…well you get it. Nika Ericson does a lovely job as the mysterious German, the open Scot and the initially stiff Pamela with all the moves and accents in place. Paul Hansen and Mike Price, who play all the other parts, are listed as ‘clowns.’ That does describe some of the antics that the two of them get up to, but it doesn’t fully suggest just how successful they are with all of their various characters.
Patrick Harlow’s mad cap comic adaptation of The 39 Steps is a wonderful piece of theatre that succeeds in being a fine use of theatre that mightily entertains while being totally true to the original.
The Cardinal Stage Company’s production of The 39 Steps directed by Randy White at the Ivy Tech John Waldron Arts Center continues with performances through November 18.
At the theatre for you, I’m George Walker.