It’s not exactly the Bard, but the 2017 season of Santa Cruz Shakespeare gets off to a ripping start with The 39 Steps. Based on an adventure novel by John Buchan, famously made into Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1935 chase thriller movie, the story gets another makeover in director Paul Mullins’ uproarious production—long on sly wit, short on logic, and absolutely irresistible.
This 2005 stage adaptation by English playwright Patrick Barlow is an exercise in comic audacity. All the parts are played by a cast of four—three men and one woman—in a variety of costumes, accents, and disguises. Barlow takes his inspiration mostly from the movie (especially in the ’30s period setting), and nudge-nudge, wink-wink references to Hitchcock and his oeuvre pop up throughout. You don’t have to know the film to enjoy the play, but those familiar with the Hitchcock version will get a special kick out of the sheer chutzpah of this interpretation.
At its center is Richard Hannay (Brian Smolin), a bored young man puttering around his London flat one evening who decides to distract himself by “doing something mindless and utterly useless—I’ll go to the theater!” It’s the first step on the road to disaster. At a music hall performance by a mentalist called Mr. Memory (Allen Gilmore) and his partner/handler (Mike Ryan), Hannay meets Annabella (Grace Rao), a sexy dame with a ripe German accent, who begs to come home with him.
In short order, the mystery woman is dead in his flat. The police suspect him, the sinister men who were following her are now following him, and Hannay is on the run. All he knows is she was trying to convey secret information about an international spy ring to a colleague in the wilds of Scotland, so he grabs a map and takes the train north, hoping to sort it all out before the police can arrest him for murder.
But who cares about the plot? All the fun is in the playing. Smolin, who won hearts and cracked funny bones in the title role of The Liar a couple of seasons back, plays only one character, and his Hannay anchors the show with his determination to be a good sport, his insinuating double-takes, and his acrobatic dexterity. (It’s a riot when he limbo-slides out of an armchair from under a dead body.) The subtle ways he preens while running in place onstage as police bulletins describe him in ever more flattering terms is also very funny.
Rao is also terrific as the three principal women—Annabella, the femme fatale, Pamela, an innocent Scottish lass married to a parsimonious old farmer, and Margaret, an angry blonde who winds up handcuffed to Hannay in his trek across the Scottish moors. She and Smolin get a lot of comic mileage out of those cuffs, trying to go over, no, under, no, around a wooden style out in the country, or traversing a bog — played by Ryan.
Ryan and Gilmore (their parts are called Clown 1 and Clown 2), play everybody else, and they’re both hilarious. Gilmore is especially memorable as the ferociously self-abnegating farmer saying grace, or an ancient staffer at a political rally attempting to set up a podium. Ryan brings down the house in the rally scene as an elderly speaker with a miniscule voice. A lot of the biggest laughs come from the Clowns missing their cues, or struggling to change costumes fast enough—like their virtuoso duet on a train platform, playing three parts simultaneously by feverishly switching hats.
Scenic designers Annie Smart and Justine Law’s rolling staircase set cleverly adapts to every locale, from music hall to train station to manor house. Special kudos are due to properties designer/master M Woods for transforming objects like crates, chairs, and a ladder into a train, a car, a railroad trestle, and the Scottish Highlands. (One door frame on wheels is particularly ingenious.) B. Modern’s period costumes are deft and impeccable.
Clearly, everyone involved in this production is having a high old time, and the audience can’t help but be swept along.
The Santa Cruz Shakespeare production of ‘The 39 Steps’ plays through Sept. 3 at the Audrey Stanley Grove in DeLaveaga Park. For ticket info, call 460-6399, or visit santacruzshakespeare.org/tickets.