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Double-time '39 Steps' more manic spoof than suspenseful drama

Sometimes messing with a classic works and sometimes it doesn’t. “The 39 Steps,” the multiple award-winning, over-the-top comedy that opened at the Oregon Cabaret Theatre on Friday evening, is equal parts broad, frantic spoof and homage to the droll, dignified genius of Alfred Hitchcock. It’s like asking the audience whether they like their martini with a twist or an olive. 

The storyline may be vintage Hitchcock, but on stage, “The 39 Steps” has all the familiar comic standbys of the English palladium. The four-actor cast plays multiple roles, often involving cross-dressing. The pratfalls are nonstop. Minimal props and broad gestures stand in for multiple exotic locales. 

Debonair retired adventurer Richard Hannay (John Stadelman) meets glamorous spy Annabella Schmidt (Katie Worley) when he attends a music hall performance by a memory artist. She claims she is being pursued because she knows of a plot to steal vital military secrets. She must reach a man in Scotland to stop the plot. When she is stabbed that night, Hannay goes on the lam to try to find the leader of the spy ring and clear himself of her murder. Off he goes, by train, car and over the moors on foot, to the mysterious Scottish house with the unpronounceable name. 

Stadelman is delightfully arch and impressively athletic as he goes through all the antics of a stiff-upper-lip British hero. Worley deftly plays Hannay’s various love interests — Annabella, a young crofter’s wife; and Pamela, the elegantly beautiful woman he meets on the train. All of the other roles — spies, cops, traveling salesmen, innkeepers and assorted villagers, male and female — are played by the rubber-faced Stephen Kline and the physically imposing Justin Waggle. 

Director Rick Robinson keeps the action moving briskly, providing precise timing to all the attendant hysteria. Most of the time, the pacing works, balancing the spy drama with the slapstick. 

Unfortunately, that constant level of hysteria is also the production’s weak point. Kline and Waggle start out so intense, so over the top and so frantically manic that they have nowhere to go with later characters as the action heats up and the chase becomes more frantic. There are too many nudges, too many winks, too many acknowledgements of their breathless costume changes. 

Robinson also goes overboard with the Scottish accents. Yes, we get it — an unintelligible Scottish accent is funny. Robinson, though, takes the play’s already exaggerated satire to uncomfortable lengths. 

Craig Hudson created the set’s minimal superstructure as well as all the zany props. Kerri Lea Robbins’ provided costumes that feature ’30s chic, as well as over-the-top Scottish highland gear and some exuberant cross-dressing. 

This version of “The 39 Steps” has a literary history almost as convoluted as its plot. Hitchcock based his classic 1935 movie on a 1915 suspense novel by John Buchan. The film established Hitchcock as an international filmmaker and paved the way for his successful Hollywood career. The movie has all the story points that became Hitchcock trademarks — an ordinary man caught up in a sinister plot, his desperate attempts to elude pursuit, and the icy blonde who becomes his unwilling accomplice. Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon adapted “The 39 Steps” to a four-actor stage piece in 1995 and Patrick Barlow then turned it into farce in 2005. Barlow’s version garnered a Laurence Olivier Award in Britain for “Best New Comedy” and two Tony Awards in 2008 for the Broadway production. 

The Cabaret’s production of “The 39 Steps” unabashedly mixes its high anxiety with low farce, liberally seasoned with joyful acting and impressive physicality. However, if you prefer your Hitchcock droll and dignified, this one will leave you frenetically exhausted. 

Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at rbkent@mind.net.