Review of The 39 Steps at the Duluth Playhouse

I won’t go into a lot of detail about the intricately convoluted plot of The 39 Steps, largely because the plot resists description, but also because part of the delight of this cinematic play is to see how it all unfolds. Needless to say, it involves the usual trappings you’d expect of Hitchcockian suspense and film noir: a femme fatale, foreign espionage, and false murder accusations. With a cast of four playing innumerable characters, The 39 Steps lovingly lampoons the genres of noir (and even, at times, screwball comedy), with many winking references to Hitchcock’s oeuvre.

Perhaps more so than any other production this season, stagecraft really becomes a starring player in The 39 Steps. Jim Eischen’s stark lighting design evokes the moodiness of film noir, and is also used to a great effect in simulating movement (the lighting is especially notable in a hilarious shadow play scene). The props offer some hilarious metatheatre as characters, apparently aware that they are in a play, reach out for props provided by unseen hands off-stage and rebuke the lighting technicians, while Kevin Seime’s set design credibly transforms the Playhouse into a pre-war stage.

Christa Schulz is delightful as three different love interests (we first meet her as femme fatale Annabella: a role that Schulz cranks up to eleven, creating a character that comes off as Greta Garbo with a side of amphetamines, more funny than fatale). Indeed, Schulz plays all of her characters as just slightly askew, which contrasts nicely with Jason Page’s performance. Page, who channels Errol Flynn, plays fugitive Richard Hannay as more of a self-amused straight man, bewildered by the mystery of the 39 steps and all-too-aware of his dashing good looks.

Zachary Stofer and Jack Starr, billed simply as “Clowns,” play everyone else, deftly switching costumes, accents (and occasionally gender) as they inhabit a multitude of supporting roles.  Each character is absolutely pitch-perfect and fully realized, no small feat considering how briefly some of them appear (side note: trying to tally the number of characters and distinct accents used by these two actors alone would be an entertaining, and likely impossible, diversion).   Indeed, all of the actors deserve kudos for their very convincing (and divergent) accents. The show sagged a bit in the second act (more a fault of an overstuffed script than of the performances), but the swift denouement is appropriately head-scratching and hilarious.

The 39 Steps has something for everyone: classic film buffs will enjoy the send-up of suspense conventions and allusions to Hitchcock films, theater aficionados will appreciate the masterful stagecraft and quick-change acting, and all can delight in the unconventional comedy of this very funny show.

What: The 39 Steps
Where: The Duluth Playhouse
When: June 2-12, 2011 (Thursday-Saturday at 7:30 pm, Sundays at 2 pm)

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