Kat Murrell

The Rep’s “39 Steps” is a jaunt of theatrical fun

By - Jan 16th, 2011 10:00 pm
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How do you like your Hitchcock? If you usually take yours like a smoky scotch with implacable glamour and serious mystery, where the only whiff of humor is acerbic irony, the Rep’s current production of The 39 Steps will upend your expectations. If you go for plenty of frothy fun, get your tickets now for this rollicking comedy.

The 39 Steps originated as a book in 1915 by John Buchan and was brought to the silver screen in 1939 by Alfred Hitchcock. As an example from the early part of the famed director’s career, it has classical hallmarks of his suspenseful films: the mistakenly accused man, romantic tension, and exciting chases through multiple locales.

This story has been re-imagined in various ways, and the Rep’s production of Patrick Barlow’s adaptation is a very close cousin to the film. The dialogue, the characters and the plot are strikingly similar from screen to stage, but that’s where the resemblance ends. The film features 139 characters; most still show up on the Rep’s stage, but are handled by an exceptional cast of four.

We follow the strange turn of events in the life of Richard Hannay, who leaves his London bachelor flat for a night at the theater. He meets a beautiful woman, and from there becomes embroiled in a plot of international intrigue and murder. Reese Madigan as Hannay is spot-on. His appearance, voice, even mannerisms, are an uncanny revival of the film actor, but Madigan brings far more fun and self-deprecation to the role. He sparkles with witty repartee and physical comedy.

Madigan is Hannay throughout the play, but around him, the rest of the cast swirls through various personalities. Helen Anker sets the plot in motion as the mysterious and doomed Annabella Schmidt, later the wistful Scotswoman Margaret, and  also the skeptical, spirited Pamela who becomes Hannay’s de facto sidekick.

The three women are drastically different in their internal characters, but Anker moves fluidly between them while bringing comic possibilities to the surface. Her Annabella Schmidt reaches for the over-the-top possibilities of the femme fatale, replete with thick accent and melodramatic moves. As Pamela, she is no less comedic, but in a settled way that helps anchor the zaniness as it progresses toward the conclusion.

The lead roles may be assumed to be Hannay and Pamela, but in this production the ambiguously named Man 1 and Man 2 are no less than stars of the show. Brilliantly played by John Pribyl and Gerard Neugent, they take on dozens of major and minor roles, and their timing and physical presence are a tour de force of character acting. In one particularly memorable scene aboard a railway car in a train station, they alternate characters with split-second precision, between traveling underwear salesmen, newspaper boy, station attendant and a cop, all within moments of each other. The wearing of many hats (literally and figuratively) is hilarious, and it is impressive to see such acting demands handled with so much panache.

The actors on stage carry us through the story, and are delightful in their dialogue and pratfalls. But their ability to create this expansive story on stage is ultimately beholden to the technical crew. The intangibles that augment the sparse set, such as lights and sound, carry our imaginations along in wonderful ways for a fantastic evening of laughs, gags, and theatrical fun.

Click here for the video trailer.

The Milwaukee Rep’s production of The 39 Steps continues through Feb.13, 2011 at the Quadracci Powerhouse Theatre. For tickets, showtimes and further information, click here.

Categories: A/C Feature 1, Theater

0 thoughts on “The Rep’s “39 Steps” is a jaunt of theatrical fun”

  1. Anonymous says:

    The magic of the evening derives from the juxtaposition of strong story played straight with a deliberately campy staging. Props and stage direction are cheesier than they need to be. The humor derives from theater laughing at itself.
    The stagecraft offered by “clown 1” and “clown 2” is both campy and masterful. Milwaukee’s own Gerard Neugent is great, but guest artist John Priby is even better. He has a large wrinkled rubber face that Nuegent has not developed yet.

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