Last Thursday evening, I attended the premier of Patrick Barlow’s The 39 Steps at the Station Theater in downtown Urbana. What first caught my attention when entering the theater was that the stage was much smaller than what I was used to. Furthermore, the stage décor consisted of nothing but a brown armchair against a gray backdrop. Given that the Station has used its space to create such expansive, imaginative sets in the past, I was curious to see what was to be done within a more restricted and stripped area.
The 39 Steps was originally an adventure novel written by John Buchan in 1915. Twenty years later, Alfred Hitchcock adapted the book into a film, in which he diverted from the novel’s storyline by adding multiple scenes and introducing two major female characters. Finally, Patrick Barlow rewrote the movie as a farcical play in 2005, requiring the entire show to be performed by a cast of only four.
In Barlow’s adaptation, Richard Hannay, a smooth-talker with a pencil moustache, is enjoying a demonstration of the eidetic memory of “Mr. Memory,” at a London theater. He is joined by the mysterious Annabella Schmidt, who, during the performance, fires a revolver into the audience. The two run from the theater together, and Schmidt talks Hannay into letting her spend the night at his flat. Back at the flat, Schmitdt reveals that she is a spy who recently uncovered a plot to steal British Military secrets; the man in charge of the operation is the head of an espionage circle called the “39 Steps.”
The following morning, Hannay wakes to find Schmidt splayed across his armchair, stabbed in the back with a knife. With her final breaths, she tells Hannay to find the man in charge of the operation who is hiding in a small town in Scotland. Hannay flees his apartment and leaves the country by train.
The play then follows Hannay on his comical misadventures in Scotland, including a chase sequence atop a moving train, an improvised speech for a political candidate he knows nothing about, and an unlikely love story between him and the beautiful, Pamela. All the while, the mystery of what the “39 steps” is deepens and unfolds.
While the storyline is fun and familiar, I found myself focusing more on individual performances than on plot. As mentioned above, the cast is made up of only four actors who are expected to play roughly 100 characters throughout the performance. To accomplish this task, actors must execute rapid costume and accent changes, occasionally switching characters while on stage.
Furthermore, since there were so few props and backdrops, the actors were forced to use the stage imaginatively to demonstrate the complex action in the story. For example, the scene in which Hannay is chased by a police officer on moving “train cars” involves both actors hopping from one wooden block to another while flapping their coats vigorously to construct the illusion that they’re facing high winds.
I feel each actor added a great deal to the play. Rob Zaleski (Richard Hannay) captured his character’s comically suave dialogue perfectly and acted with a cartoonish physicality that made him enjoyable to watch on stage. Admittedly, there were some volume issues at the beginning of the play, but these problems diminished as the evening progressed, and Zaleski relaxed a bit.
Katie Baldwin (Annabella, Pamela, Margaret) very competently played not one, but three major roles in the play. I felt she was strongest as Pamela, as she captured the characters’ furiously sharp-wit as well as her desperate, sensitive side. Furthermore, I felt that Baldwin and Zaleski had strong on-stage chemistry, which made their relationship believable and emotionally engaging.
Mike L. Matthews Jr. (Clown 1) and Mike Prosise (Clown 2) embodied the energy needed to make The 39 Steps a successful production. They both demonstrated the ability to embody numerous characters in a short amount of time, and were consistently hilarious in whatever role they assumed. Ultimately, I felt what made their performances most enjoyable was that they both seemed to be having a great time while on stage.
I feel it important to note that The 39 Steps is a challenging a play with which to be involved; its success is highly dependant on maintaining a fast pace consistently and on punctual line delivery. Which is to say, of course there were moments when jokes fell flat, moments where the energy of a scene was momentarily interrupted, but these moments were few and far between. And for an opening night, I feel the Celebration Company did an impressive job of keeping the audience laughing. In conclusion, The 39 Steps is truly a fun summer play that I highly recommend going to see.