PROVO — A tiny black box theatre, a small cast, and lots of laughs awaited me at the Covey Center for the Arts as I attended The 39 Steps, adapted by Patrick Barlow and directed by David Hanson. The 39 Steps is the melodramatic retelling of the Hitchcock 1935 film. It follows Richard Hannay, a civilian who is framed for the murder of a secret agent, as he flees to Scotland in attempt to stop a ring of dangerous spies. Although, the original John Buchan story was a serious spy tale, this version is much more comedic as the cast of four quickly change and play over 100 different roles.
Richard Hannay, played by Eric Geels, was everything needed for this production. He was the dashing young bachelor who woos multiple women (all played by Clara Richardson) throughout the show. At first I wasn’t sure how I felt about him, but it didn’t take me long to warm up to this character. Geels did a fantastic job of keeping a balance on the melodramatic levels of this show, which could have easily stayed over the top but did not. I particularly enjoyed the scene where Hannay was trying to read the newspaper as his Scottish hosts were praying over their meal. Geels and Richardson had a fun chemistry that was able to adjust to the mainly different relationships and encounters that they had.
Richardson did well at making each woman she played different. Annabella was foreign, dominant, and aloof. Margaret was smitten by this dashing visitor to her husband’s farm. But Pamela was my favorite of them all. She was feisty and spirited, sprinkled with moments of sincerity and sweetness. I loved watching her loathing of Hannay as she found herself stuck handcuffed to him and being dragged across the Scottish countryside. Their scene in trying to get past a fence was that of a game of human knot gone wrong. As this was the relationship that had the most time to show growth, I was grateful to see the variety of layers between Richardson and Geels.
The majority of the roles in this production are taken on by Clown 1 (Jeremy Showgren) and Clown 2 (Caitlin Young). These two cast members have to be flexible and talented, and they certainly were with this production. It was easy to distinguish between their different characters, even when they were playing multiple characters on stage at once. I loved the train scene as they rotated on and off the train becoming paperboys, constables, and ladies’ underwear salesmen. The scene never felt overly chaotic, but rather it flowed smoothly while maintaining a fun, high energetic pace. I also highly enjoyed Showgren’s performance as the female motel proprietor. This character was cheery and noisy with sense of good fun. I couldn’t help smiling every time this character was on stage.
As this production calls for a lot of flexibility in set locations and costumes I was immensely curious about the technical designs. The stage was a small platform, surrounded on three sides by the audience, with the fourth side being a wall that was painted in grays to match the paint of the platform. Very plain and nondescript, but very flexible. As I waited for the show to start I observed that there were pieces that could pop out of the floor and wall to become windows, tables, and other set pieces. The set and lighting design by Dan James was well done and allowed for the lightening fast scene changes called for in the script. Hansen also used corners of the theatre to create added staging. Additionally, several scenes were created using small puppets and silhouette cutouts attached to long bars. This allowed the audience to have a long distance view of the scenes portrayed, and to catch a few more Hitchcock references.
Costuming for this production was designed by Caitlin Young and was basic so that cast members could easily adapt to become different characters. Hannay, Clown 1, and Clown 2 were in simple slacks and white button up shirts to which jackets, hats, aprons, shawls, wigs, and vests were added to for the different characters they played.
I have very few critical critics of this production. My main issue was with the lighting of an upper corner of the theatre. I hope that the light for that corner can be refocused so that it lights the actors more. As they stand at the stop of riser steps their heads were in the dark, while at least two audience members were in bright lights. At first I thought this might be an artistic choice as the first scene played in that corner is set in a theatre where a mystery woman appears and asks to sit by Hannay. Hannay, who was sitting at the moment, was well lit and Annabella remained in the shadows as she stood. The shadows across her face added to the mystery. However, later the corner is used for other purposes and the lighting no longer seemed to fit. Although I was bothered by the troublesome lighting, I was delighted by the comedic timing of the lighting in other scenes. In particular, I loved how the lights spotlighted the two spies standing on the street every time Hannay peeked out his window blinds. He looks out, the spotlight turns on, quits looking and the spotlight immediately turns off, repeated a few times, with humorous results each time. There are so many light and sound cues that need to be nailed in this production and for the most part they were. A few minor glitches, but nothing that will remain permanent in the production.
I definitely recommend The 39 Steps for a fun night out. This show is the perfect kickoff for the autumn season and Hitchcock fans will enjoy catching the references to many of his films. The cast is extremely talented and juggle the set and character changes very well, and I’d love to see their show again. Now, excuse me while I go have the Hitchcock marathon this production made me crave.