The 39 Steps is most famously a movie made by Alfred Hitchcock in England, before he relocated to Hollywood. It was preceded by the John Buchan novel and followed by several other film and TV versions, all from the UK.
In his published conversation with Alfred Hitchcock, fellow director Francois Truffaut observed that in the spy thriller The Thirty-Nine Steps, Hitchcock was willing to “sacrifice plausibility in favor of pure emotion.” “Yes, that’s right!” was Hitchcock’s entire response. On stage, there’s no theatrical form more willing to sacrifice plausibility for emotion than farce, if the result is laughter.
And it’s farcical comedy that Ferndale Repertory Theatre presents with Patrick Barlow’s 2005 stage version of The 39 Steps, in which four actors play 150 characters.Well, it’s more like three actors playing 149 characters. Well, really it’s two actors playing 147 characters. You get the idea. There are four actors playing a lot of people—especially spies and femme fatales-- in a lot of different places, including a train and an airplane. The story more or less follows the plot of the movie (and the novel) at breakneck speed, in a script praised for its hilarity. Apparently getting all the Hitchcock references is a bonus.
The story: Hannay is watching a stage show in London starring Mr. Memory, whose talent is that he remembers obscure facts. A shot rings out, a woman accosts Hannay, and he’s off on an adventure that takes him to Scotland and back, in pursuit of enemy agents, secret military plans and the mystery of whatever the 39 steps are.
The intrigue and sleuthing genres have inspired many styles of spoofing. This is not the verbal and countercultural comedy of Firesign Theatre—it’s no Nick Danger, Third Eye (although a Dr. Memory does appear in another Firesign production.) It’s not exactly a film parody, in the manner of Neil Simon’s movie The Cheap Detective. It is mostly the Hitchcock story done as physical comedy, especially as directed by Dell’Arte grad Barney Baggett.
“What I like in The Thirty Nine Steps are the swift transitions,” Hitchcock told Truffaut. “You use one idea after another and eliminate anything that interferes with the swift pace.” The play mimics that idea. The emphasis is on virtuoso character switches, slapstick and acrobatics. Which is fortunate, since bad Brit accents and an abundance of otherwise unintelligible dialogue don’t add much.
The fast pace depends on stage magic performed by scenic and sound designer Dan Stockwell, lighting designer Greta Stockwell and costume designer Lydia Foreman, plus backstage managers Ben McBride and Juan Reynosa.
Sommers threads the action with the appropriate awkward aplomb, Gardner is an appealing love interest, while Webb and especially Casillas display admirable clown skills. There are gaping holes in the story and this presentation, but that’s Hitchcock, too.
If you’re expecting no more than a diverting show this may fit the bill, especially with a bag of the popcorn from the lobby.
The 39 Steps continues weekends at Ferndale Rep through October 30. Tickets and information: (707) 786-5483, http://ferndale-rep.org.