PROVO — One of the best parts of watching local theater is getting caught up in the energy and passion of the performers. This is especially true with student productions and can be seen in spades at the new production of The 39 Steps at BYU. This production, directed by student Joanna Noall, is inventive, creative, and jam-packed with laughs.
Playwright Patrick Barlow took an old Alfred Hitchcock movie, The 39 Steps, and adapted it to be a spoof of murder mysteries and spy dramas. I have actually never seen the Hitchcock film, but I am sure it has a wildly different tone than this theatrical version. The other unique aspect of The 39 Steps is it is written for a cast of only four actors who all play multiple parts. In certain scenes, hats are passed around to play more characters than there are people on stage, all having conversations with each other. It adds a mania to the proceedings and laughs, especially with charismatic comedic actors like the students in this production.
Speaking of the actors, the whole cast is great. I was especially impressed with how many accents and personality types they were each able to juggle sometimes in the same scene. These students were called upon to speak by my count in German, Irish, Scottish, Canadian, and British accents and a hilarious unintelligible old person voice. My favorite performance was by Aunah Johnson (who is billed as “Clown 1”) because she has the most physical comedy, which she nails every time.
Nathan Whisamore plays the lead Richard Hannay with a suave debonair style reminiscent of charismatic actors of the 1940s, like Cary Grant and Gary Cooper. The whole production had an air of an old-time radio production with plenty of melodrama. Whisamore is also asked to do most of the action of the show with scenes where he is hanging from a bridge (very cleverly put together with a strategic movement of the stage to create the desired effect).
The cast is rounded out by Devoree Ellis and Isaac Maltby, and they were fantastic. I particularly enjoyed Ellis as Margaret, the farmer’s wife whom Hannay stumbles upon in Scotland. As that character, she has a bright red wig and some saucy language to go along with it. There is also a long segment where she is handcuffed to Whisamore that delivers the laughs. Maltby gets to play some of the more outlandish characters which I won’t spoil for the readers. However, my favorite was when he becomes an old man who can barely move or speak, and he tries to introduce a politician to a boisterous audience. It was very funny.
Noall excels at creating atmosphere and interesting movement using simple props and settings. For example, a crop dusting plane is made using a wooden toy plane and panels in place of the propellers. In another scene, the actors made a car using chairs, lanterns and an upside down lounge chair. It kept the play interesting because there was no way to know how the next stage piece or scene would be created quickly by the four frantic actors.
Another important element of the show is its audience engagement throughout the evening. In one scene, the actors even ask the audience for input and riff a little at what is suggested from the crowd. When the action stretches out into the stairs and walkways of the theater, it makes The 39 Steps feel all the more immersive and enjoyable. The actors even used the playbills as part of the plot, giving the feel of being at the London Palladium in the 1930s.
All that said, another recent version I saw of this show had a foley artist that interrupted the plot and provided accompanying sound effects to the action. There were a few dry moments in this staging, which might have been uplifted if they also had a foley artist to interact with the audience even more than the pre-recorded tracks allowed them to do in this production. However, this is a small critique for a delightful evening of theater. There are also parts of The 39 Steps that are a little racy by BYU standards, and some audience members may find that alarming. It is more innuendo than outright sensuality, but it surprised me nonetheless. Particularly in the section where Hannay and Pamela are handcuffed together, things get pretty spicy.
Still, audience members in the mood for an energetic night of theater can’t go wrong with choosing to see this production of The 39 Steps. Bravo to the director and actors for creating such an enjoyable production.