Some shows are difficult to describe on paper — you have to be there. PCPA Theaterfest’s frenetic production of “The 39 Steps” is such a production.
Billed as a “suspenseful romantic comedy,” it is much more than that. On a creatively functional set, a cast of four seems like 40 with chameleonic changes of character. Action packed, with chases, sound effects and even puppets, it’s like a three-dimensional live cartoon. Directed by Mark Booher, it’s brilliant fun.
The play is based on the 1935 movie by Alfred Hitchcock, which was based on a 1915 novel by Scottish writer John Buchan. The stage version by Patrick Barlow primarily follows Hitchcock’s film, and turning the whirlwind screenplay into live action on the stage is an amazing — and funny — feat.
The hero is Richard Hannay, who is at the London Palladium attending a demonstration of the remarkable Mr. Memory when a disturbance breaks out, and in the panic he finds himself sheltering a woman who says she is a spy being chased because she has uncovered a plot to steal British military secrets by “the 39 steps.” She is murdered in his flat, and he becomes the suspect, on the run from then on.
To make a long story short, he encounters German spies, is pursued by Scotland Yard, escapes handcuffed to a beautiful woman, and finally learns the secret of the 39 steps.
The story is fairly ordinary, but the way it is told is extraordinary. The entertainment is not in the suspense, but in the moment. With revolving doors and clever props, the scenes change almost as fast as they would on screen. Among the settings are a Scottish manor, a rustic inn, a bridge, and a hilarious run through the countryside. Boxes are transformed into a train, automobiles — with bright headlights — a bed, and whatever else is needed. The action is sprinkled with sound effects, from sheep to thunder. Kent Homchick is scenic designer, and Elisabeth Rebel did the sound.
Andrew Philpot plays Hannay, a semi-serious role, and Stephanie Philo is the woman he becomes handcuffed to. The rest of the characters, both male and female, are played with comic relish by Peter S. Hadres and Evans Eden Jarnefeldt. They go instantly from cop to innkeeper to a girl selling ice cream to a spy’s wife — and dozens of other characters. Sometimes the change is as simple as changing hats — from cop to conductor. Others are more complex but surprisingly quick, such as from detective to an innkeeper’s wife. (They must dress in layers.) Juliane Starks designed the costumes.
The acting is high-energy physical comedy, including mimelike movements as the train jerks or the wind blows. In a scene that takes the chase to the top of a train, the actors flap their coats to create a convincing imitation of riding a speeding train. Philpot runs in place as though he is racing across the countryside, hangs from a bridge and climbs through a small window, among other antics. Stagehands help with the swift movement of props from one scene to the next, and even portray obstacles to Hannay’s flight, such as rivers and a bog (that says, “ribbit”). These stagehands are Tamara Chambers, Scott Fuss, Shae Palic and Sean Peters.
During the story, cameo mentions of Hitchcock’s iconic films flit by. There are momentary references to “Rear Window,” “The Birds,” “Psycho,” “Vertigo,” and “North by Northwest” — as Hannay is chased by a plane (you have to see it to believe it).
This show is a rich mix of theatrical creativity and comic talent, appropriate fun for families, preteen and up.