WEST VALLEY CITY — Start with one arena stage, two straight backed chairs, three old fashioned steamer trunks, and four extremely versatile actors. Toss in a foley artist and a stage manager to crank up the visual and aural high-jinx, and it’s the perfect recipe for a riotous evening of theatre the likes of which is not often seen along the Wasatch Front. Hale Centre Theatre’s production of The 39 Steps, an adaptation of the Alfred Hitchcock film of the same name, but infinitely funnier, takes the audience on a fast-paced adventure from 1930’s London, the Scottish countryside and back again as our hero Richard Hanney (played by Ben Jarvis) tries to clear his name and solve the murder of a strange woman who turns up dead in his bachelor apartment.
Christopher Clark’s masterful direction “exposes the wheels and gears of theatre” (in his own words) and invites the audience to become a part of what is happening onstage. Actors change characters right in plain sight, simply by adding a hat or removing a jacket; set changes are simple yet clever. In fact the set pieces that are not being used at any given time are stored in plain view of the audience, not hidden away. The sound effects are creating literally at ringside by a Foley Artist (Brett J. Warner) and the stage manager (Wes Tolman) who are as integral to the production as the actors with lines. All these elements are combined and presented with a wink to the audience that somehow says “We are so very clever, aren’t we? Won’t you join in with the cleverness of us?” and yet it works perfectly together. The creative process is not hidden in any way, and the result is magical. By inviting the audience to step so closely into the entire production, I found myself rooting for the actors, rather than the characters, which was a little disconcerting at first, yet ultimately was quite satisfying. The show doesn’t take itself too seriously, and the results are refreshing, quirky, and unusual.
The four main actors worked together seamlessly to create over 40 different characters. Ben Jarvis is the only actor who does NOT change character during the course of the show. His Richard Hanney was handsome, dashing, witty and clever. Kelly Marie Hennessey played Annabelle Schmidt, Pamela, and Margaret, three roles which showed the range of her versatility, from the mysterious femme fatale, to the incredulously upright, to the maritally repressed. Hennessey was charming in all varieties and wonderfully created distinct characters. But truly, the stars of the show were Jeffrey Whitlock and Justin Bruse as Clown 1 and Clown 2, respectively. These two actors were a tour de force as they morphed through over 30 diverse characters with nary a slip or misstep over the course of the evening. The two actors never relaxed or let their energy lag. The scenes on the train and in the train station were particularly. There may have been only three men onstage, but thanks to Whitlock and Bruse’s performance, there were about 12 distinct characters in the scene, most on stage at the same time. Their costume changes, accents, entrances and exits were intricately choreographed and flawlessly executed. It was hysterically funny and so impressive that the scene got its own round of applause at the end. Even in the brief instant when one clown tripped and broke a footlight at the edge of the stage, or later when the other clown ad libbed briefly at the dropping of a poor wee lamb, these two actors never missed a beat. And because the audience had already been so cleverly integrated into the theatricality of the production, these small glimpses of the real men behind the characters were deliciously tantalizing moments, rather than a shock to the system that might otherwise have ruined the illusion.
Also deserving special recognition are the set designer, Jennifer Stapley-Taylor, and the properties designer, Michelle Jensen. These two designers worked together seamlessly to create many different scene locations and characters. The doorframe that flipped again and again to indicate passage through many rooms in a Scottish castle, the window frame that jumped from wall to wall as needed, the door handle that locked and unlocked as needed, and especially the car (which even featured the very British right-hand drive) were all used to great effect. Costume designer Kristy Draper had a big job in rigging specific pieces for extremely quick changes both on and offstage, and for the most part were flawlessly executed. Sound co-designers Dan Morgan and Alec LeBeau created an array of sound effects that allowed the foley artist to become an essential part of the production as well. The actors and foley artist “bantered” back and forth throughout the performance.
For the true Hitchcock fan, close listening and sharp eyes will also reveal a nod or two to other Hitchcock favorites, including Rear Window, North by Northwest, and To Catch a Thief, and others. But whether you are a huge Hitchcock fan, or can only cite the Psycho shower scene when pressed to name a Hitchcock film, The 39 Steps is an excellent evening of theatre, and well worth the price of the babysitter.