Saturday, October 4, 2008

Theater: The 39 Steps at the Court Theater

Though I took a college class on Hitchcock and watched more than half his movies, I never saw The 39 Steps, which perhaps made this production all the more fun: I had no idea what I was getting into, aside from some kind of mysterious comedy in which a mere four actors play 150 roles. Yes, a mere four actors play 150 roles.

This is even more impressive when the show starts and we see that one actor plays only one role, and one actress plays only three, leaving the other two to handle the remaining 146, often with the sparest of costume changes (the flip of a hat, say, or in one case, the turning of the body from right to left, to show one half clad in trenchcoat, the other in suit jacket).

The nail-biting hilarity begins when bored bachelor Richard Hanney goes out to the theatre one night and is followed home by a mysterious woman in a dark suit and hat, vamp-red lipstick, and an unplaceable Eastern European accent. That night, she's murdered in his apartment, and he sets off to complete her mission (she had disclosed to him before dying that she was a secret agent attempting to stop the export of military information, and that this would require a trip to Scotland to see The Professor). With little more information than this, Hanney sets off to save his country, chased all the while by the Scotland Yard as the murderer of the mysterious lady left in his apartment with a knife in her back. Madcap mayhem ensues, of course, as Hanney tries to escape the heat, find the Professor, and then escape from the Professor once he realizes said Professor is playing for the other team. The answer to the mystery ("What are the 39 Steps?") plays out back again in the theater, once Hanney has been in and out of police custody and picked up a nervous but lovely young blonde on the way.

What makes this production so fantastic (aside from the witty script and the positively brilliant performances by all four cast members, the protean pair in particular, with their special chemistry) is its whimsical candidness about the theater. The set is extremely spare, and the actors double as the crew, but they manage to use their bodies and costumes as props (lifting and shaking a jacket to demonstrate wind-flapping motion during a chase scene atop a "moving train"), and, when that won't do, they drop a backlit scrim and create a shadow tableau, with little puppets (complete with a Hitchcock cameo), flashing lights, and at one moment, descending whirly-propeller planes (a reference to North By Northwest! ((There's a Psycho shower shout-out, too, and tons others if you keep your eyes peeled (and ears: the line "The lady vanished!" references, of course, the Hitchcock flick The Lady Vanishes))).

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