Tuesday, August 27, 2019

TheatreWorks stages hilarious 'The 39 Steps'

Cassidy Brown (left) and Ron Campbell play a Scottish innkeeper and his wife as Annie Abrams as Pamela and Lance Gardner as Richard Hannay sign in for a room.

What starts as a bored man’s night at the theater turns into a murder followed by a frantic chase that leads him from London to Scotland in 1935.

Presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, this is the crux of the madcap “The 39 Steps,” Patrick Barlow’s stage adaptation of a John Buchan novel and an Alfred Hitchcock movie.

In this version, four actors play dozens of characters, but only Lance Gardner as Richard Hannay, the theater-goer, plays just one role. Annie Abrams plays three of the principal women.

It’s up to Cassidy Brown and Ron Campbell to portray an array of other people of both sexes.

Cassidy Brown (left) and Ron Campbell are vaudeville players in the show seen by Richard.
While at the theater, Richard is joined by a mysterious woman, Annabella Schmidt (Abrams), who says she’s being chased by two men who want to kill her. At her request, she goes home with Richard but winds up with a knife in her back.

Before dying, though, she tells him that an enemy spy ring led by a man in Scotland is planning to steal state secrets, the 39 Steps, that could endanger England.

Suspected of killing her, Richard flees, pursued by a succession of bumbling cops. Once in Scotland, he meets Professor Jordan (Campbell), the sinister ringleader. It’s time to run again, this time handcuffed to Pamela (Abrams).

Eventually all is resolved and the repository of the 39 Steps discovered.

Although the plot itself is interesting, even more entertaining are the quick changes by Campbell and Brown, sometimes just by donning a different hat.

Another fun part of this play is the subtle references to other Hitchcock films, such as “Rear Window,” “Psycho,” “The Birds” and others. There’s also a trademark of Hitchcock films, a quick appearance by the director himself, this time in profile.

In her program notes, director Martinson says that the actors are portraying four members of a traveling theatrical troupe who arrive at the theater only to find that no one else is there, and the stage hasn’t been set up, but 500 people are in the audience to see the show.

They gamely go on, using whatever costumes, props and set pieces are handy.
While they’re supposedly improvising, these versatile actors actually are performing a tightly choreographed work that requires precision timing, stamina and physical flexibility.

The first act sometimes veers into slapstick, but the second works better, leading to a hilarious farce.

The actors’ performance also requires the designers’ careful work: Cathleen Edwards for costumes, David Lee Cuthbert for the set, Steven B. Mannshardt for lighting and Cliff Caruthers for sound.

Running about two hours with one intermission, “The 39 Steps” will continue through Sept. 15 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View.

For tickets and information, call (650) 463-1960 or visit www.TheatreWorks.org.

Photos by Kevin Berne