"The 39 Steps" at Theatre Buford, October 11-27, 2019
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Title: Hitchcock Parodied
A rolling window unit. A rolling door unit. An upstage bookshelf flanked by tall stepladders. Various trunks and chairs. A rolling costume rack. In the dim stage light before the play begins, all these can be glimpsed in the scenic design by Jamie Bullins (assisted by Terea M. Abernathy). Then Bradley Bergeron’s excellent lighting design takes over and we see various stage elements highlighted as movement occurs from scene to scene and place to place. Placards placed on an easel far stage left let us know each location.
Four actors populate the stage: Matt Baum as Richard Hannay, a handsome colonial in England; Rachel Frawley as all the women with whom he has romantic entanglements; and Cory Phelps and Patrick Wade as clowns portraying all the ancillary characters of the plot, male and female. There are consequently LOTS of costume changes, and Suzanne Holtkamp’s designs do a wonderful job of distinguishing characters. There is one huge misstep, though: the innkeeper and his wife portrayed by the clowns stick one arm through rectangular costume boards that are awkward to move in and whose awkwardness director Topher Payne emphasizes endlessly. In contrast, the three-piece suit worn by Mr. Baum throughout is elegance personified.
Alexis McKay’s props and Chris Lane’s sound design get nearly as much of a workout as the costumes. Both are excellent, making the show come to life with lots of little gags scattered throughout.
Accents are one of the highlights of the show, with varieties from all over the British isles being heard at one point or another. To my American ear, they sounded impeccable, but I overheard one older gentleman in the audience complaining early on that he couldn’t understand a word they were saying. Still, Mr. Baum’s English accent is very good (although perhaps not totally appropriate for a colonial), and the accents of Ms. Frawley, Mr. Phelps, and Mr. Wade persuade the audience of the provenance of all their characters. No dialect coach is listed in the program, but the results are superior to most shows that list one.
The physical skills of the actors are put to full use. Mr. Baum can juggle and do wondrous hat manipulations and leap through windows at a single bound. Ms. Frawley can be as comically broad or as repressed as need be in her characters, and Messrs. Phelps and Wade switch characters in an instant.
The pace of the show is not all it needs to be, though. Topher Payne has inserted lots of comic bits into the action to highlight the skills of his actors, but a madcap pace is not maintained throughout the show. Particularly in the second act, action seems to drag a bit. Hijinks involving ladders and suitcases are fun to watch, but placement seems more studied than slapdash, affecting the momentum of the piece.
"The 39 Steps" reproduces the Hitchcock film as a comic romp. There’s a lot to like in Theatre Buford’s production, particularly in the deft performances of the remarkable Matt Baum and versatile Rachel Frawley. While at the end the audience may not be turning cartwheels (as Mr. Baum does!), they’ve experienced a jolly romp through a spy plot that rarely fails to amuse.