Brass Tacks' "39 Steps" has giddy fun with the Hitchcock classic
The bare-bones thrust stage in a playroom at the Children’s Creative Center is the perfect setting for the Brass Tacks Ensemble’s production of Patrick Barlow’s playful The 39 Steps.
Barlow turns Alfred Hitchcock’s famous thriller into an imaginative comic romp. While staying true to Hitchcock’s script, the play lets four actors engage is theatrical play as giddy as many days of child’s play at the Creative Center.
Brass Tacks takes a down-to-basics approach to theater, trusting its actors and the audience’s imagination to carry the day. The 39 Steps is a fine display for that approach. The “set” consists of what look like giant children’s blocks that can magically become beds, a podium, a train compartment, a music hall, and so much more.
In Hitchcock’s film, Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll starred with a large supporting cast. In Barlow’s version, one actor plays the Donat role, Richard Hannay, and the other cast members play multiple roles, sometimes switching from one character to another in the flick of an eye.
Director Ethan Gibney and his cast get to play act in the best way. Accents shift on a moment’s notice, stooped old men become upright policemen, a picture frame becomes a convenient escape window, and set changes become a funny part of the show.
Barlow’s 39 Steps is a bit Hitchcock and a bit more Monty Python. The quickly shifting scenes, the wide range of British characters, and the exaggeration of thriller moments into comic pratfalls is disarming and charming at the same time.
The 39 Steps introduced many Hitchcock signatures: the innocent man dragged into intrigue, the mysterious blonde, the MacGuffin (the object being sought that is important to the characters but not the audience), and several scenic highlights. (Watch for a tribute to another similar Hitchcock classic, North by Northwest.)
Richard Hannay is a bored man lacking adventure and romance. He attends a music hall show featuring a man with an extraordinary memory. A shot rings out and suddenly the innocent Hannay is drawn into the adventure he’s been seeking. A woman asks to go with him to his apartment where she explains that someone is plotting to spy on Britain and mentions the 39 steps without explaining what they are. She is stabbed in the night and staggers in to tell Hannay to go to a place in Scotland and get help to stop the espionage. While en route he discovers he is the suspect in her murder and is being chased by Scotland Yard. Along the way he meets an attractive blonde, spends time with an old Scot and his much younger wife, stops at the address he’s been given and encounters a villain with a missing pinky and spends a night at a quaint Scottish Inn, handcuffed to the blonde.
All of this becomes comic fodder for Brass Tacks' uniformly excellent cast. They are enjoying every minute of this theatrical larking and making the most of it.
Daniel Bizer-Cox plays Hannay. In a way, he has the easiest time of it as he plays just the lead role. But Hannay is always in motion. He is the quintessential non-heroic hero. Bizer-Cox gives a fast-talking, slightly tweedy voice that displays just the right amounts of nervous energy, comic outrage, and more than a little repressed lechery. Bizer-Cox gets to take quite a few pratfalls with just the right aplomb.
Dory Mead plays the mysterious and/or romantically interesting women he encounters along the way. She’s the spy that drags him in, the young wife of the old Scot and Pamela, the role played by Madeleine Carroll in the movie. Mead makes each character vividly different. The spy is all business and bluster who dies a funny death. The young wife is a shy country girl with regrets and a roving eye. Pamela is a spunky young Brit who won’t be manhandled by Hannay. Pamela becomes Hannay’s betrayer, rescuer, and love.
That leaves all the other parts to Isaac Ellis and Maegan Murphy. They have the most fun of all.
Ellis plays a stooped old politico, a snide villain, a suspicious old husband, a loving old wife, an easily conned Londoner, a music hall performer, and much more. He shifts easily from one character to another, sometimes as smoothly as turning around and speaking in a totally different voice. His body is as flexible as his voice in creating the nuances that separated once character from the other and in taking some great pratfalls.
Murphy also takes on many characters, everyone from a train conductor, to a police officer, to a bearded old man, to a haughty grand dame who may just be a spy. Murphy seems to be having the most fun of all as she has to race about quickly shifting from one character to another in a matter of seconds. She makes the transitions from conductor to police officer and back again lickety-split without missing a beat. She is also funny as the stage taskmaster, humorously crying in despair when the blocks haven’t been moved for the next scene.
Gibney has fun with the play’s theatrics, which lend themselves so perfectly to the intimate and unusual day-care setting. This is adult play and Gibney and his cast do an excellent job of making it a really great play date.
Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.
"The 39 Steps" continues at 8 pm on April 21, 27, and 28 and 2 pm on April 22 and 29 at the Children’s Creative Center, 1600 Pauline Blvd., Ann Arbor. For tickets, visit squareup.com/store/btensemble or call or text 734-926-5376.