By Bridgette M. Redman
In “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” the White Queen tells Alice she used to believe six impossible things before breakfast. It must have been a practice that Patrick Barlow shared when he undertook the writing and creation of “The 39 Steps.”
The play brings to the stage the Alfred Hitchcock movie and does it with an abundance of stage magic and a tongue firmly implanted in the cheek of the adapter. In his hands and the adept hands of the cast and crew at The Hope Summer Repertory Theatre, the 1935 British thriller becomes a comedy and farce of the highest order.
Directed by John K.V. Tammi, the cast of four actors hits every plot point of the movie leaving nothing out – not even the airplane hunts or chases across the cars of a train.
Russell Jonas is Richard Hannay, a man with a thick British accent who is pulled into an international spy intrigue when he decides to go to the theater one night and is accosted by a mysterious woman as he watches “Mr. Memory” perform in a variety show. Jonas is the only one who plays a single character, and despite having the lead, may have the easiest role in the play. Which isn’t to say “easy.” He brings high energy and constant motion and surprise to Hannay’s life, growing throughout the course of the few days to become more apt in his role as international mystery man.
Kate Thomsen plays the major women in the play – Annabelle, Margaret and Pamela. She is the femme fatale who launches the unwitting Hannay into the plot, and later plays the innocent Scottish farmgirl and the snooty, upright Englishwoman. She plays her part with a great commitment to the physicality of it, entertaining the audience with physical gags. She is utterly sold on the show’s style, and plays up the stylistic choices with perfect panache.
Glen Forbes and Joshua Kumfer are the two workhorses of this play – and the clowns who keep the farce in constant motion. They are Man 1 and Man 2, and they play the roles of every other person who passes through the movie, sometimes exchanging roles (and hats and coats) with a speed that challenges the naked eye to follow. They are also magicians who build cars, control airplanes, create moving trains and pop back and forth between multiple stage and character heights with a speed that ensures this play is never stuck in pause mode.
Early on, their antics under a street lamp distracted from the center stage action at a crucial moment in what seemed a weak directorial choice. However, most of the time the two kept the plot in spinning motion around Jonas and Thomsen in ways that were delightful and thrilling.
In a show that relies on tricks and stage magic, the real stars are those people you never see – the stage crew and the designers. All of them had to work overtime, and their labor was beautifully executed in Hope Summer Rep’s production. Stage manager Rebekah Carriere kept her crew (Heather M. Foley and Jacqueline Marschke) in constant motion.
Jodi Ozimek (assisted by Mary Elizabeth Winther) designed costumes that were subject to being flung instantly on and off. They were sometimes layered on top of each other with overcoats, underskirts, stockings and enough hats to make a haberdasher proud. They ranged from the elegance of dinner coats to uniforms belonging to police officers, milk men, newspaper hawkers and train conductors. They included sleazy dinner jackets, Scottish kilts, farm dresses and tuxes.
Lighting designer Erik Alberg (assisted by Devyn Elizabeth McQueen) created complicated specials that had lighting effects coming in from all directions. Some scenes were back lit while others had flashing lights from the side or the front. There were only a few moments where actors seemed unnecessarily left in the dark at times where seeing their faces would have been a stronger choice.
Sound designer Amanda Werre delivered split-second sound cues ranging from the mundane phone rings to the sounds of flocks of sheep, bagpipes, party noise, train recordings, and airplane crashes. Every scene was filled with a soundtrack, and each one was piped in with brilliant timing.
Scenic designer Micah Maatman created stage pieces that were flown in and out on ropes, wheels and the eager workings of Forbes and Kumier. To create the cinematic feel of the original movie, there were often split second scene changes, and Maatman created the idea of an apartment, a stage with balcony seating, a train, a farmhouse, a mansion, a street, a hotel, a political gathering and even a fog-covered moor. All were designed with speed in mind, so the running scene changes let the actors move from place to place without a single pause in the action.
Props master Wyatt Hetherington Tilka had a similar Herculean task in making sure that each prop was able to fly into place at a moment’s notice and be used for the tricks and turns that let the four actors re-create a story in movie style. From maps to knives, to fake arms, hymnals, bullets, buckets, brooms, plates and overlarge sandwiches, Tilka managed a thrift store counter’s collection and made sure they all arrived in time.
“The 39 Steps” is a show that relies on its gimmicks and fast-paced patter to create a farce filled with puns, Hitchcock references, and the silliness of the cinema. Tammi ensures that the pace is always break-neck and the style is fully committed. Hitchcock and film fans will be delighted, as will those who are tickled by stage magic that invites the audience to share in the broad winks and the suspension of disbelief.
‘The 39 Steps’
Hope Summer Repertory Theatre at Knickerbocker Theatre, 86 E. Eighth St., Holland. Plays in repertory through July 6. 2 hours, 9 minutes. $12-21. 616-395-7890. http://www.Hope.edu/hsrt