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Return to the movies of yesteryear:
The 39 Steps at Seattle Rep
Review by Peg Doman
The Seattle Repertory Theatre’s current production, “Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps”, is so interesting, and so, so funny. The original 1935 Alfred Hitchcock movie is the basis for the play, as the book by John Buchan was the basis for H’s movie.
However, Patrick Barlow, the adaptor, (concept from Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon) takes the original spy thriller plot points and adds an original twist: he turns it into a ridiculous farce. This adds a whole new dimension to the production. And farce demands, and may I say again demands, exact timing to work, and “The 39 Steps” really, really works. This is really a credit to director Maria Aitken’s vision and skill in insisting on and getting absolute concentration from the actors.
The original Hitchcock movie was rather a melodrama bordering on campy with spies trying to smuggle military secrets out of the country, mistaken identities and last but not least, the archenemies of civilization, Nazis.
It kicks off with Richard Hannay, a comfortably well off 37-year old bachelor at loose ends, meets at the Music Hall a mysterious woman Annabella who has a “foreign”, perhaps Slavic accent, who asks if she can come home with him,. She retires to his bedroom, alone, and is murdered during the night.
The continuous humor with its “Perils of Pauline” lack of subtlety was added by Barlow. There is slapstick, and characters moving the sets, and clever ways of progressing from one “room" to another or from inside to outside.
The set is actually just isolated pieces of furniture, a portable lamppost that two spies drag on and off the stage to delineate the street outside Hannay’s flat, trunks that are train cars and compartments, doors that the actors turn around to show leaving one room and entering another, and window frames that the actors hold up and then climb through to show leaving a house.
Another intriguing addition is a concentration on movement between the characters. This first shows up as Hannay is traveling in a train compartment with two lingerie salesmen. There are trunks to delineate the seats and all three are bouncing and swaying along in unison. When the police chase Hannay along the tops of the train cars (leaping from trunk to trunk) they flap their coats and capes to simulate the whistling wind. In the Highland croft, this was especially apparent in the young wife’s braids that were shaken to indicate the strong winds.
Toby Sedgwick, the original movement coach, studied at the Jaques School in Paris , a particular philosophy of movement. The exquisitely fine delineation of movement is like watching a Fosse choreographed dance, with even the extension of the dancers’ fingers to be so thought out and controlled, you know the performers spent hours and hours learning the process. Follow our link, if you’d like a very little more information about the Jaques movement.
Of course, I must mention the four actors, that with the switch of a hat, a way of holding their shoulders and some costume switches, play 150 characters. Ted Deasy plays Richard Hannay, the only actor to play just one character. Claire Brawnell (who comes from the Broadway production of “The 39Steps) plays Annabella the spy, Pamela the innocent who’s shocked to be pressed into helping Hannay, and Margaret the aging Highland crofter’s nubile young wife. Eric Hissom begins as Mr. Memory, the pivot of the play. He also plays with great ability, Mrs. Jordan , a hotel landlord, a train conductor, different spies and so on. His compatriot in the rubber face division is Scott Parkinson who plays Professor Jordan, a spy, a Scotch newspaper hawker, a lingerie salesman, ad infinitum. They are all masterful.
I admire the work of set and costume designer Peter McKintosh who with hats, small changes in coats and ties, and isolated pieces of furniture and a scrim shows us an apartment, a train compartment and train cars, a Highland croft and hotel, policemen, a wild chase over the moor, and endless other variations. One device I especially enjoyed was the garters holding up Hissom’s and Parkinson’s socks that were visible when they portrayed women in skirts. It added an extra silliness.
If you’d like additional information about Hitchcock, thrillers, the actors and more go to the Offstage button under “The 39 Steps” at Seattle Rep.
“The 39 Steps” runs until October 24. For information and tickets, go to Seattle Rep or call the box office 877-900-9285. If you want to go with someone under 25 years of age, their tickets are only $10; this makes taking a young guest affordable.
The next production is “August: Osage County” by Tracy Letts and directed by Anna D. Shapiro which runs from October 27-November 1, 2009