THE 39 STEPS at WST: Lots of Shtick

by Lila Achuff

Paul Riopelle, Dan Hodge and David Hess in THE 39 STEPS, running through May 1 at Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia PA. Photo by Mark Garvin.

OK! This is IT … a reason (Who needs that?) to go to the theatre, Walnut Street Theatre, that is, to “experience” THE 39 SHTEPS, er STEPS, just for FUN! No thinking necessary (unless you feel like it). William Roudebush, Director, you must have had a blast with this incredibly talented cast of thousands! Well, just four. In this half spy and half slapstick comedy, these FOUR performers kept us moving from London to Scotland in such fast-paced hilarious scenes (51 of them!) that even blinking was not a great idea. Think Laurel & Hardy, Frick & Frack (goofy ice skating team from decades ago) and Lucy & Ethel in time-lapse photography! Sometimes I was so taken with what I was seeing that I was too consumed with my OMGs while the audience was continually hysterical with laughter.

Act I opens with handsome, debonair and serious Richard Hannay (David Hess) in attendance at the London Palladium where “Mr. Memory”, Clown #2 (Dan Hodge) with his photographic memory, is performing with Clown #1 (Paul Riopelle). Think Vaudeville. Don’t be thrown by the reference to “clowns” as they do not appear as such, but certainly act the “fools”. Oh, so funny! Hint: While you’re laughing, try to pay attention to what’s happening … not easy to do. A fight ensues, shots rings out (you jump) and before you can say, “What happened?” Annabella Schmidt appears in his arms and insists on Richard taking her to his flat. Just an everyday occurrence, right? Oh, BTW, she’s his wife in real life (Joan Hess)! (It must be a riot in your household!?) She immediately (even faster than that!) informs him that she is a spy and holds the key to a “government secret that is about to leave the country.” And the leader of those pursuing her has a missing finger! Clues are so helpful. The very next day (I can’t emphasize enough how quickly everything transpires in this show.) she is dead in his lap – stabbed in the back with a knife. Richard becomes the accused, of course, and suddenly he is a fugitive on the run, not only for his life but he’s also determined to solve the mystery happening before us, not the least of which is the importance of uncovering a German spy ring, The 39 Steps! He must find the man with a missing finger!

Buckle up for the theatrical ride of your life! You are about to witness these four characters on the run through a series of crazy lightning speed adventures, quick costume changes (I’m talking seconds!), many different accents and all done with precision timing. An understatement! While Hannay is being pursued by the cops (think Keystone), he finds himself on a train to Scotland – in the train, being chased on top of the train, jumps off the train! In this milieu he manages to encounter Pamela who becomes his love interest (Gotta have romance!) but not until she refuses his advances and even attempts to turn him in! Suddenly he’s in a cottage belonging to an old farmer and his young flirtatious wife! Remember those clowns I mentioned in the beginning? When Hannay and his female counterpart (playing three different women throughout) are acting their respective roles, as well as other characters, the other two, like magic, become a countless number of individuals and even objects! At an inn they even play four people – the innkeeper and his wife, then two thugs, back to Mr. and Mrs., back to thugs. You have to see this to believe it! It goes on and on… Were the real villains exposed? Was our hero vindicated? And the romance? What are “The 39 Steps”? You have so much to look forward to!

Readers, the special effects are simply mind-boggling! Fog, mist, steam, smoke, train whistles, wind, shadow puppets, etc. … your visual and auditory senses will be aroused big time! This production is well oiled and finely tuned! Set changes went totally unnoticed. Just brilliant! Come fully rested! Keep an eye out for the moving train. If you’re expecting to see a show that makes sense, you might come away disappointed. It helps if your sense of humor is in high gear. And bring the kids! Oh, what a night!

THE 39 STEPS was adapted by Patrick Barlow from John Buchan’s 1915 novel and Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film of the same name. It was on Broadway in 2008 for two years thereafter, and went to Off-Broadway three months later – a rare move. Among the several awards won, two of them were Tony awards.

Until the next show…

Adapted by Patrick Barlow from the novel by John Buchan and the movie by Alfred Hitchcock
Original Concept by Nobby Dimon and Simon Corble
Directed by William Roudebush
March 15 – May 1, 2011
Walnut Street Theatre
825 Walnut Street
Philadelphia PA 19107

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