Theater Review: "The 39 Steps" at Shadowland Stages | Theater | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine

Say the name Alfred Hitchcock and one is immediately thrust into the world of film noir—frenetic chase scenes, stark, minimalist landscapes, and the hapless everyman turned unsuspecting victim and suspect. Alfred Hitchcock had already produced a series of successful movies, when in 1935, The 39 Steps, filmed in England, brought him international recognition, and helped launch his decades-long Hollywood career. Loosely based on the 1915 novel of the same name, Hitchcock’s film is fraught with menace from unknown foreign powers, echoing the climate in Europe at the time. “The 39 Steps” currently playing in Ellenville, is not that Alfred Hitchcock. Well, it is. A little.

As the play opens, a reflective Richard Hannay ruminates on his nonconsequential life, but quickly leads the audience into what is essentially a two-hour-long flashback. We are alongside Hannay in a London theater as “Mr. Memory,” a music hall performer, astounds us with his skills of recall and encyclopedic knowledge of all things trivial. A shot rings out, and panic ensues. Hannay finds himself accosted by a frightened woman who urges him to take her back to his flat. There, she weaves a tale of espionage, murder, and military secrets. All of this seems to nestle neatly within the Hitchcockian trope, but that is where the similarities end.

“The 39 Steps” wove a circuitous path before landing at Shadowland Stages Studio in Ellenville. Based on the 1915 novel by John Buchan, and later famously adapted by Alfred Hitchcock, “The 39 Steps” was reconceived in the early 2000s by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon, then reworked again in 2008, by Patrick Barlow. This is that delightfully absurd incarnation currently running at Shadowland Stages through July 9.

Theater Review: "The 39 Steps" at Shadowland Stages
Jeff Knapp
Laura Cable and Eric Bryant lead the cast of "The 39 Steps."

A cast of four, led by Eric Bryant as Richard Hannay, and Laura Cable as the mysterious Annabelle Schmidt, tackle the daunting task of embodying over 50 characters. Bryant has the only single role, as Hannay. Cable plays all three female lead characters: Annabelle, Margaret, and Pamela. That leaves the other two players—Jessica López-Barkl and Andy McCain—a staggering 50-plus roles between them. Accomplished by employing lightning-quick accent changes, physical idiosyncrasies, and the extremely effective use of clothing and other props, the actors convincingly portray multiple roles within each scene, sometimes acting opposite themselves.

What stops this gimmick from becoming just another played-out theatrical conceit is the fact that this production of “The 39 Steps” doesn't take itself too seriously. Brendan Burke, Shadowland’s artistic director, directs the show, creating an environment where the actors are self-aware and sometimes break the fourth wall. In a scene that threatens to go on slightly too long as López-Barkl cycles endlessly between characters, doffing one hat after another, Hannay impatiently calls out, “Come on, let’s get on with it!” bringing an end to the mayhem. López-Barkl and McCain apologize to the audience when their props don’t quite deliver the realism they are supposed to. And a nonexistent set, and low-tech effects necessitates the use of shadow puppetry and creative lighting tricks.

The performances of all four actors are a bit broad and over the top, but that works to help sell this as a parody and tongue-in-cheek tribute to one of the filmmaker’s most important works. The whole production is a love letter to Hitchcock, with references to his most well-known films peppered throughout. The audience is in on the joke as the actors name drop some of the master’s most beloved films. North by Northwest even supplies an important plot point gimmick in Act One, and particularly clever audience members may chuckle as one character leaves the stage whistling, “Funeral March of a Marionette,” better known as the theme to the ‘50s TV show “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.”

Shadowland's new, intimate, hundred-seat-and-change black box theater is well-suited to a production of this scale, although the unorthodox, in-the-round staging—or in this case, “in-the-square” staging—is a risk. Relying heavily on sight gags, the challenge becomes ensuring that the blocking works from all angles, and that the up-close-and-personal interaction with the audience is effectively engaging.

“The 39 Steps” rises to these challenges. The production strikes just the right note, balancing farcical, almost slapstick, humor with solid acting. I tip my hat (if only I had as many as he wears in the play) to Andy McCain, who is the standout gem, leaning into every character portrayal with a gusto that often has him glistening with the effort. Doing a lot with a little, “The 39 Steps” at Shadowland Stages is worth a look.

“The 39 Steps” will be performed through July 9. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm. Shadowland Stages is located at 14 Market Street, Ellenville. The show's run time is 120 minutes with a 15-minute intermission.

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