By Judith Cookis Rubens
Sometimes the best ideas sound more than a little ridiculous.
For example, who would turn “The 39 Steps,” a classic 1935 Alfred Hitchcock thriller picture, into a top-speed theatrical farce with just four actors playing more than a hundred roles? It’s a move that sounds ambitious at best and downright unfunny at worst.
But, surprisingly, playwright Patrick Barlow’s absurd romp, now at Farmers Alley Theatre, is thoroughly entertaining and chuckle-heavy, thanks in large part to a dynamic foursome of actors who give every scene – and every character – their all. With a flip of a hat (literally), they play secret agents and spies, to old men, Scottish farmers, policemen, innkeepers and more. The accents and mannerisms whip around at greater speed than the Scottish winds that howl through some scenes.
The plot stays the same: Everyman hero Richard Hannay (Robbie Gay) is a restless, 37-year-old bachelor who attends a London theater performance alone, only to meet a mysterious German spy, Annabella. She’s on the run from a Nazi villain. Hannay lets Annabella hide out at his flat, only to find her mysteriously murdered in the morning. He’s now the prime suspect, and to clear his name, he sets off for Scotland to follow the cryptic clues Annabella left.
His journey finds him running from cops on a train, chased by planes, jumping from bridges, and running across the moors of Scotland. Each new location is creatively imagined on Farmers Alley’s intimate stage with only a few costumes and props, lighting and sound cues, and tons of physical acting.
When battling the winds, actors flap their jackets and sway in perfect sync so that you almost feel the blustery chill. Same goes for the great railway scene, where Hannay is trapped in a tight train car with two obnoxious salesmen (Joe Aiello and Scott Burkell). The trio bounce and dance around each other in perfectly hilarious fashion, simulating the train’s tight quarters and bumpy movement.
NYC-based director Brian Feehan gets the timing just right on these theatrical touches. You’ve got to imagine how long these players practiced the choreography – especially the scene where Aiello and Burkell swap hats at warp-speed, switching between train conductor, policeman, paper boy and passenger, without skipping a beat. Still, it comes off as playful, not like rehearsed blocking. Any possible missteps can be easily covered because the script actually calls out the show’s running gag of quick-changes, giving the audience a knowing wink and nod.
Gay, as the dashing Hannay, makes a great fish-out-of-water hero who has great chemistry with the dames, even if they frustrate him. He has some great moments of physical slapstick, but he’s just as funny reacting to the craziness.
Laura Stuart Obenauf shines in her three female roles, going more over-the-top with her accent as German spy Annabella. She brings things back to reality as blonde bombshell Pamela, who’s equally intrigued and horrified that she keeps running into Hannay, a suspected murderer.
Aiello and Burkell are in top form as all the rest of the colorful characters. Aiello has great fun playing a jealous Scottish farmer and he’s fiendishly good as the Nazi “professor” who milks his last exit. His “old man” at a political rally is funny, too. Burkell gamely takes on several female roles, including the professor’s wife and a saucy Scottish innkeeper. He plays those for big laughs and gets them. As the theatrical clown, “Mr. Memory,” on a London stage, Burkell delivers a mouthful of tongue-twisting facts that could get old if not for his clever delivery.
A show like this needs a sharp backstage and technical crew. Kudos to technical director Fred Gillette, set designer W. Douglas Blickle, lighting designer David Downey and sound designer Derek Menchinger for the well-done effects. Era-appropriate costumes, props and wigs – along with some speedy backstage dressing action – allow the whole operation to succeed.
Hitchcock fans will find funny nods to other films including “The Birds” and “North By Northwest.”
For all its silliness and over-the-top moments, there are genuine laughs to be had here. As our narrator Hannay says early on, theater – “a mindless diversion” – is sometimes just what one needs.
‘The 39 Steps’
Farmers Alley Theatre, 221 Farmers Alley, Kalamazoo. Thursday-Sunday through April 28. 2 hours. $23-27. 269-343-2727. http://www.farmersalleytheatre.com