It’s summer, so that means farce time at Hedgerow Theatre, and this season they’ve chosen to present Patrick Barlow’s stage adaptation of THE 39 STEPS, which is about a man in London who tries to help a counter-espionage agent prevent an organization of spies called “The 39 Steps” from stealing top secret information. When the agent is killed and he stands accused of the murder, he goes on the run with an attractive woman to save himself and stop the spy ring.
The Alfred Hitchcock thriller (starring Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll) hit the movie theaters in 1935, with the usual plot devices: mistaken identities, espionage and a dead body. And Barlow has managed to make a comedy out of all that… The story is taken from a novel of the same name by John Buchan, written in 1915; an initial four-actor stage version created in 1995 by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon premiered in North Yorkshire, England. The script now being performed at Hedgerow was a rewrite done by Barlow in 2005. This version subsequently won two Tony Awards in its Broadway debut and has enjoyed tremendous success in regional theatres ever since.
The reason it’s been so well received is that it’s hilarious. Early on I decided to not take any notes and just enjoy the show—plus, things were happening at a breakneck speed and I didn’t want to miss anything. In addition to the titular film, many of Hitchcock’s most popular works are given a comedic homage in truly clever ways. See if you can spot them all… This production totally explains why they are called “plays”. There is such a delightful, lighthearted spirit to THE 39 STEPS that you can’t help but get caught up in the fun.
Under the deft direction of the Philadelphia Artist Collective’s Damon Bonetti, the production features Hedgerow Fellows Rebecca Cureton and Joel Guerrero, along with returning Fellow Andrew Parcell and guest artist Matt Tallman. All four actors are onstage for most of the performance, dashing in and out at lightning speed—they must be exhausted by the end of the show. Tallman is terrific as the dashing hero, Richard Hannay. He has great comedic timing, as well as a certain Clark Gable quality that works well for the role. Tallman is quite charming and instantly gets the audience on his side. I have not seen him in the area before (though he’s worked extensively in Philly theatres), but I look forward to enjoying future appearances. Cureton first appears as the mysterious femme fatale, Annabelle Schmidt, hitting all the right notes as an over-the-top German vixen. She also has one of the funniest deaths I’ve ever seen. Cureton pops up later on as the down-trodden wife of a rural farmer, Margaret, nailing an innocent/vacant look to a tee. Finally she’s back as Hannay’s love interest, the beautiful and righteous Pamela—who ends up handcuffed to Hannay and forced to go on the run with him. Cureton essays both roles with equal aplomb.
The real stars of the show are Guerrero and Parcell, who between them play all of the other characters in the story. I lost count as to how many there were—sometimes they were doing 2 at once. The press release said there were 150 characters in the story, so Guerrero and Parcell are handling 146 of them!?! They switched costumes, accents and genders on a dime. Both are gifted comedic actors, but together they are comedy gold. The opening night audience could not stop laughing at their physical and verbal antics. It was such fun to watch two talented actors enjoying the pure joy of practicing their craft and mastering such a challenge. The whole cast was fun to watch for that matter.
Director Bonetti has acted at Hedgerow in the past, but this is his first time directing there. He recently played the role of Hannay at Theatre Horizon in Norristown, so he brought a great deal of familiarity with the script and its challenges to this production. I know many of the gags were scripted, but one could clearly see Bonetti’s point of view in executing them; the staging is truly clever and well-timed. Key to carrying this all out is the work of stage manager Colleen Marker and her 3-person crew of Moira McKniff, Brock Vickers and Caitlyn McKniff. Each of them works like a precision drill team to get the scene and costume changes accomplished in record time. Well done mates.
The design team was also on their game for this one. Zoran Kovcic has provided a simple yet inventive set, with assorted pieces rolled on and off as needed, and Jared Reed’s lighting does an excellent job of creating mood and locale. A terrific soundscape by Stefán Örn Arnarson becomes an additional character in the piece, providing spot-on support for the story—and board operator Lily Dwoskin’s timing for both the lights and sound is impeccable. Villanova’s resident costume designer Janus Stefanowicz gives the actors wonderful costume pieces to slip in and out of, and the color palette reminds one of a 1930s film. She was assisted by Jenn Lanyon, and Megan Deihl has created great wigs and moustaches for the ensemble.
In addition to 91 years of great live theatre, it’s worth the trip to Hedgerow to see all of the recent improvements to the building. The gardens are newly re-landscaped and are a delight to walk through as you head to the new atrium entrance and lobby. Two of the mill’s exterior stone walls have been partially opened up, creating an expansive lobby and box office area. The new entry also allows much easier access for patrons with handicaps—no more stairs, or coming in via the stage door.
THE 39 STEPS is a terrific bit of fun—make plans now to go see it cause I think they’re gonna have lots of sold out houses. It’s the perfect bit of silliness to while away a summer’s evening. And if you’re a Hitchcock fan, you’ll love all of the references—there’s even a signature Hitch cameo.
THE 39 STEPS
by Patrick Barlow
From the novel by John Buchan
& the film by Alfred Hitchcock
Directed by Damon Bonetti
July 10—August 17, 2014
64 Rose Valley Road
Media, PA 19063