The first thing that N.C. State University Theatre “regulars” will notice about The 39 Steps is the drastic “remodeling” done in the Kennedy-McIlwee Studio Theatre in NCSU’s Frank Thompson Hall. Scenic designer Jayme Mellema has created an awesome replica of the interior of a 1935 theater in London’s West End, complete with balcony boxes and footlights. Amazing! Equally amazing is the show itself — a comic masterpiece.
The 39 Steps, adapted for the stage by Patrick Barlow, is based on Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 movie of the same name (which was loosely based on John Buchan’s 1915 novel). (Indeed, Barlow’s 2005 play is a rewrite of the 1996 version by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon.) Did too many cooks spoil the soup? Not under the direction of Rachel Klem!
This stage adaptation is written to be performed by four actors — one to play the leading man, a second to play all three of the women with whom he consorts (however briefly), and two others who play all of the remaining roles. In addition, there are two actors who are listed as “stagehands”; these two carry on, position, re-position, and strike props and set pieces, provide various sound effects, change signs, hold up signs calling laughter or applause, and many other things during the course of the show.
The upshot of this adaptation: while the serious espionage story of Hitchcock’s thriller film is, indeed, retold in its entirely, it has been transformed into a comic melodrama, rife with sight gags and allusions to other Hitchcock movies. To refer to it as “a laugh a minute” would be a gross understatement!
Director Rachel Klem has wisely chosen Jonathan King for the central role of Richard Hannay. Seeming almost to channel British comic actor John Cleese, King’s crisp gestures and animated facial expressions couple with his brisk wit and impeccable comic timing to glean the most out of this role. (We also detected flavors reminiscent of John Steed, the central character of the campy British spy-TV series The Avengers.)
Marisa Markoch plays Annabella Schmidt, the spy that Hannay meets one night at the theater. Markoch imbues the character with just the right amount of cartoonish femme-fatale spy-ish-ness. Schmidt begs Hannay to take her home with him. He does. She tells him just enough about foreign intrigue and something called “the 39 steps” to make him feel complicit.
When Schmidt is found murdered in his flat, Hannay flees to Scotland to avoid a similar fate, to elude police pursuit, and to try to clear his name — the game is afoot. Markoch also plays Pamela and Margaret, two other women who figure in to Hannay’s odyssey.
Gus Allen and Daryl Ray Carliles team up as Clown 1 and Clown 2, respectively, to portray a plethora of other characters who use a wide variety of accents. Quick changes of costumes and the occasional donning and removal of wigs and beards (sometimes in plain sight on stage) preserve the frenetic pace and add to the laugh-fest.
Meanwhile, Stagehand 1 (Roman Lawrence) and Stagehand 2 (Austin McClure) pull out all stops to create movie-ish effects on the stage. Doors and windows are represented by frames that these two carry on and off. These imaginary doors must be knocked on and opened; the stagehands provide the sound and light effects as the actors mime the actions. And there is a priceless gag involving an imaginary window-shade that demands split-second timing on the part of the technical crew. Be prepared, also, to be amused as these two build both a car and a train and fly a plane — right before your eyes.
A well-earned tip of the hat to lighting designer Joshua Reaves; sound designer Eric Alexander Collins; and costume, hair, and makeup designer Laura J. Parker. And kudos to Heather J. Strickland and Jason Bailey for the fight choreography.
Fans of Alfred Hitchcock will appreciate the frequent allusions to such films as Psycho, The Birds, Rear Window, Vertigo, Strangers on a Train, and North by Northwest. Don’t be surprised if you leave the show resolving to watch (or re-watch) a whole lot of Alfred Hitchcock films.
If laughter is the best medicine, this show offers a dose big enough to cure a lifetime of ills. The 39 Steps is the second course of the feast known as N.C. State University Theatre’s TheatreFest 2018. We enjoyed the first course (Ira Levin’s Deathtrap), and we look forward to the final course: Dan Goggin’s Nunsense (both directed by NCSU’s director of University Theatre John C. McIlwee).
SECOND OPINION: June 10th Raleigh, NC Chatham Life & Style review by Dustin K. Britt (who awarded the show 4 of 5 stars): https://chathamlifeandstyle.com/performing-arts; and June 6th Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview Byron Woods: https://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/the-39-steps/Event?oid=14859706.
N.C. State University Theatre presents THE 39 STEPS at 7:30 p.m. June 14-16, 2 p.m. June 16 and 17, 7:30 p.m. June 20-22, 2 p.m. June 23, and 7:30 p.m. June 24 in the Kennedy-McIlwee Studio Theatre in Frank Thompson Hall, 2241 E. Dunn Ave., Raleigh NC 27607, on the N.C. State University campus.
TICKETS: $23 ($6 NCSU students, $15 students, $19 NCSU faculty and staff, and $21 seniors 60+), except $15 on Community Night (Wednesday, June 20th).
BOX OFFICE: 919-515-1100 or http://purchase.tickets.com/. SHOW: https://theatre.arts.ncsu.edu/39steps/ and https://www.facebook.com/events/380757032428063/.
THEATREFEST 2018: https://theatre.arts.ncsu.edu/theatrefest-2018/.
PRESENTER: https://theatre.arts.ncsu.edu/, https://www.facebook.com/ncstateuniversitytheatre, and https://twitter.com/ncsutheatre.
The 39 Steps (1915 spy book): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Thirty-Nine_Steps (Wikipedia).
The Book (text): https://books.google.com/ (Google Books) and http://www.archive.org/details/39_steps_0807_librivox (audio recording by LibriVox.org).
John Buchan (Scottish novelist, 1875-1940): http://www.johnbuchansociety.co.uk/ (John Buchan Society), http://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/john-buchan-469226 (Internet Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Buchan (Wikipedia).
The 39 Steps (1935 film): http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/92939/The-39-Steps/ (Turner Classic Movies), http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0026029/ (Internet Movie Database), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_39_Steps_(1935_film) (Wikipedia).
The 39 Steps (2005 Leeds, 2008 Broadway, and 2010 Off-Broadway comedy): http://www.love39steps.com/ (official website), http://www.39stepsny.com/ (Broadway website), http://www.ibdb.com/broadway-production/the-39-steps-469215 (Internet Broadway Database), http://www.lortel.org/Archives/Production/5012 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_39_Steps_(play) (Wikipedia).
The Script: https://books.google.com/ (Google Books).
Study Guide: http://www.39stepsny.com/Education Pack_2010.pdf (The Mousetrap Foundation).
Patrick Barlow (English playwright): http://www.lortel.org/Archives/CreditableEntity/38453 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), http://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/patrick-barlow-469223 (Internet Broadway Database), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patrick_Barlow (Wikipedia).
Rachel A. Klem (Durham, NC director and N.C. State University Theatre acting coach and instructor): https://theatre.arts.ncsu.edu/our-team/ (NCSU bio).
Pamela Vesper has been a Raleigh resident for more than 20 years. A local attorney for licensed professionals, when she’s not in court, Pam can be found watching or participating in local theater productions or enjoying the vibrant Raleigh music and craft beer scene. She also loves indie and foreign films and was an anchor on the local cable show, Movie Minutes. Pam has an opinion on just about everything; just ask her. Kurt Benrud is a graduate of Cary High School and N.C. State University, and he has taught English at both. He first became involved in local theater in 1980. He has served on the board of directors for both the Cary Players and the Cary Playwrights’ Forum. He is also a volunteer reader with Triangle Radio Reading Service. Click here to read their reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.