|Daniel Wagner, Evan Wade, and Adam Williams|
By Tina Arth
The program for Beaverton Civic Theatre’s latest reads: “The 39 Steps by Patrick Barlow, based on the novel by John Buchan.” Perhaps this is technically accurate. However, a more artistically valid and helpful descriptor would be “The 39 Steps, a parody by Patrick Barlow based on the film by Alfred Hitchcock.” It is the iconic 1935 film that made Hitchcock a star in the United States, and it is Hitchcock’s take on the early motifs of murder/mystery/spy fiction that are mocked and celebrated in the playwright’s hilarious 2004 play. Although relatively inexperienced, Director Amy Millay has done a nice job of steering her four cast members through the (literally) dozens of roles they fill in a complex, fast-moving show that combines melodrama with Marxian (the brothers, not Karl) madness.
The story is fundamentally irrelevant – the script is there only to give the actors and crew a reason to hang out on and around the stage, amusing us and working up quite a sweat in the process. A bored, seriously underemployed (but apparently well-heeled) Canadian, Richard Hannay, is swept into international intrigue when a glamorous and mysterious spy, Annabella, is murdered in his London flat. To clear his name and prevent unspeakable (if unspecified) disaster, Hannay sets out by train to look for Alt Na Shellach, a large estate in Scotland somehow connected to the assassins and their dastardly plot. Pursued by policemen and spies (and, occasionally, spies disguised as policemen), betrayed by the skeptical traveler Pamela, and aided by the amorous farm wife Margaret, Hannay eventually makes his way back to London and the truth is revealed.
The key to the show’s humor, other than some very clever writing, is Millay’s energetically farcical direction of her four-person cast. Evan Wade plays Hannay throughout, while Lesley Nadwodnik plays three key female roles (Annabella, Pamela, and Margaret). Two extraordinarily versatile lads, Adam Williams (clown #1) and Daniel Wagner (clown #2), play all of the other roles, both male and female – the amazing Mr. Memory, policemen, spies, train conductors, Scots, innkeepers, even a political organizer. Lightning fast shifts between upper-class British, Cockney, both mild and dense Scottish accents, and some vaguely Gallic and Teutonic tongues, when combined with quick-change artistry and a plethora of challenging physical comedy, contribute to two acts that keep the audience in stitches.
Nadwodnik’s three characters are all 1950s style bottle blondes, - but that’s where the overlap ends. She is a convincingly stereotyped femme fatale as Annabella, and does a fine job of flopping bonelessly about as her character’s corpse. As Pamela, Nadwodnik is suddenly veddy British and very, very upright and uptight – while her Margaret is naïve, a bit dowdy, and love struck in a calf-like way. Evan Wade, playing only one character, misses out on most of the quick-change fun, but he still does a superb job with the physical comedy (watching him teeter across the Forth Bridge inspired just a touch of acrophobia), and his campaign speech is a wonder to behold.
It’s the clowns who really steal the show. While I have seen productions with more miraculous costume changes, Wagner and Williams have developed a tight choreography that elicited not just laughs, but occasional hoots and hollers from a rowdy opening night audience, and Wagner’s mobile face and rubber body alone would be worth the price of admission.
A stark geometric set with no fixed furniture or props allowed for quick scene changes (done with half lighting and enough frenetic hysteria so that the scene changes become part of the comedy), and costume designers Erin and Stacie Looney found just the right touch to suggest the many characters without overdoing the detail – amazing what a few hats, cloaks, and aprons can do!
The 39 Steps is pure farce – no need to look for themes deeper than BCT’s recognition that we all need to laugh. While definitely not aimed at children, the show is pretty family friendly, and many kiddos would get a real kick out of the production.
Beaverton Civic Theatre’s production of The 39 Steps runs through Saturday, March 17th at the Beaverton City Library Auditorium, with 8:00 pm shows on Friday and Saturday and 2:00 pm matinees on Sunday.