Sunday, June 3, 2012

'The 39 Steps' at Theatre in the Grove

Dennis Kujawa (left) as Hannay draws suspicion from salesmen
Zachary Centers and Justin Canfield.

Theatre in the Grove takes '39 Steps' Toward Comedic Perfection

By Tina Arth and Darrell Baker

Imagine Harpo and Chico Marx (if Harpo talked) as 50% of the cast in an English drawing room murder/mystery.  Add a leggy cross between Dietrich, Garbo, and Lucille Ball. Mix thoroughly with one poor sucker of a straight man, and you have a pretty clear picture of the marvelous cacophony that emerges from Theatre in the Grove’s current production of “The 39 Steps.”

Centers (left) takes on a variety of roles
opposite straight man Kujawa (right).
     The story is, to a large extent, irrelevant – the show exists as a vehicle for four hard-working actors and one sound effects guy to have an exceptional amount of fun on stage. In this farce based on a 1935 Hitchcock movie based on John Buchan’s 1915 novel, a befuddled Canadian is lured from London to Edinburgh on a spy quest somehow related to 39 Steps and the murder of the mysterious Annabella. Mayhem ensues, and the four actors face the challenge of leading the audience through a chaotic maze of plot twists, quick changes, dreadful accents, and belly laughs. Luckily for all of us, the Theatre in the Grove cast is up to the task.

     Dennis Kujawa takes on the thankless role of the straight man, Hannay, but still manages to earn his share of laughs – particularly in the physical comedy of the early scenes where he narrowly eludes a menacing cigarette holder only to find himself trapped in an easy chair beneath the rigid body of the newly-deceased Annabella. As the only character in the production who plays only one role, he provides a modicum of, if not sanity, at least continuity.

Kristen Behlings (left) impresses in her first
production with Theatre in the Grove.

     Kristen Behlings brings a wealth of experience and exceptional versatility to the stage as she moves from femme fatale Annabella to the oh-so-proper Pamela to horny Scotswoman Margaret. In her first production at TITG, she delivers a variety of accents, displays exceptional physical agility (wait until you get to the scene with the handcuffs!), and shifts seamlessly from one stereotype to the next. Whatever she’s doing, she is consistently hilarious.
     Zachary Centers and Justin Canfield are only identified in the program as “Clown” and “Clown” – thus, we have no clue about who was who. Luckily, it doesn’t matter – they were both funny.  The two quick-change artists play a plethora of roles. Need spies? Burglars? Conductors? Little old ladies? Cops? Doddering innkeepers? The world’s greatest memory expert?  Just send in the clowns! Gender, age, occupation, nationality, even height are no barrier as long as they have enough hats, wigs, skirts, and falsies – and at least 3 seconds in which to reinvent themselves.

Canfield (left) warns of interferring
with the 39 Steps.

      The show is fast-paced, and as with all comedy, timing is everything. Director Dan Harry obviously understands this precept, and draws from his cast exactly the right mix of slapstick and melodrama. With the assistance of Mark Ferris (listed in the program as “Foley Artist” but actually a one-man special effects team), Barlow provides the Forest Grove audience with a memorable comedic experience.

Theatre in the Grove’s “The 39 Steps” runs through June 17th, with performances at 8:00 pm on Friday and Saturday nights and 2:30  p.m. Sunday matinees.