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The 39 Steps
Adapted by Patrick Barlow
From the novel by John Buchan, from the movie of Alfred Hitchcock
Directed by Kirsten Wylder
Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble
November 7, 2015

 

Pete Winfrey, Rachel Tibbets, Ellie Schwetye, Carl Overly Jr. (clockwise from top left) Photo by Joey Rumpell Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

Pete Winfrey, Rachel Tibbets, Ellie Schwetye, Carl Overly Jr. (clockwise from top left)
Photo by Joey Rumpell
Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film The 39 Steps is the most famous of several filmed adaptations of John Buchan’s 1915 novel. Patrick Barlow’s stage adaption takes both versions, condenses the story, streamlines the cast, and ramps up the comedy in an inventively staged piece that has been performed in London, on Broadway, and in various regional theatres before being taken on by the always adventurous Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble. Performing in a cleverly arranged production at the Chapel, SATE’s production is characterized by the sense of enthusiasm and excellence for which this company is known.

Telling the story of Richard Hannay (Pete Winfrey), a Londoner who becomes a reluctant participant in an espionage plot. When a mysterious woman (Rachel Tibbetts) who claims to be a secret agent is unexpectedly murdered, Hannay finds himself accused and goes on the run to not only clear his name, but also to stop a nefarious plot that threatens national security. His journey takes him to rural Scotland, where he encounters a variety of characters, including a woman named Pamela (also Tibbetts) who is unwillingly drawn into the adventure, with a lot of twists, turns, and surprises along the way.

The film, and the book on which it is based, are more focused on the suspense and adventure elements, but this adaptation is more of an exaggerated comedy, staged with only four performers. Winfrey, as the hapless Hannay, is the only performer who plays one role throughout. Tibbetts plays three different women with significant roles in Hannay’s story–the mysterious Annabella Schmidt, the suspicious Pamela, and a young Scottish farmer’s wife named Margaret, who helps Hannay despite the objections of her much older, jealous husband. Carl Overly, Jr. and Ellie Schwetye, billed as “Clown 1” and “Clown 2” in the program, play all the other roles in the play, trying on a range of accents and mannerisms in service to the story. All four performers are excellent, with Winfrey and Tibbetts displaying strong chemistry, Tibbetts getting to show off three distinct accents from the exaggerated German (Annabella) and Scottish (Margaret) to Pamela’s upper-class English. Overly and Schwetye are commendably versatile and energetic as the clowns, showing excellent comic timing and strong characterization in several roles each, such as the aforementioned jealous husband, a small hotel owner, and a celebrated theatre performer with a remarkable memory for Overly; and a Scottish innkeeper’s wife and assistant, a villainous spy, and various other roles for Schwetye. These four gifted performers work well to maintain the energy, suspense, and most of all the comedy of this production, with entertaining results.

The staging makes excellent use of the Chapel performance space, setting up three primary performance areas including an old-fashioned Music Hall-styled stage as well as two smaller areas to represent various locations on Hannay’s journey. ┬áThe sense of movement is well-maintained, with trips in trains, cars, and on foot contributing to the fast-moving atmosphere of the production. The set, designed by Scott De Broux, is inventive and versatile, and the costumes by Elizabeth Henning range from the historically appropriate to the more whimsical, as is fitting with the overall tone of the production. Erik Kuhn’s lighting and Schwetye’s sound also contribute well to atmosphere of this well-staged production.

I saw this show a few years ago at the Rep, and I enjoyed it, but it’s great to see what an innovative smaller theatre company like SATE is able to do with a show like this. As is usual for this company, SATE delivers a well thought-out, superbly acted and highly entertaining production. It’s definitely one to see before it closes this weekend.

Cast and crew of The 39 Steps Photo by Joey Rumpell Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

Cast and crew of The 39 Steps
Photo by Joey Rumpell
Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

SATE’s production of The 39 Steps runs at the Chapel until November 14th, 2015.

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