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The 39 Steps
Adapted by Patrick Barlow
From the Novel by John Buchan, From the Movie by Alfred Hitchcock
Licensed by ITV Global Entertainment Limited
And an Original Concept by Simon Corbie and Nobby Dimon
Directed by Dustin Massie
St. Louis Shakespeare
August 31, 2019

In addition to performing the works of their legendary namesake playwright, St. Louis Shakespeare has also established an excellent track record for comedy, even when it’s not from the Bard. The company’s latest production is a popular one. The 39 Steps, with its basis especially on the Alfred Hitchcock film version of the story, has been performed memorably in St. Louis before, and it is likely to be seen here again in various amateur and professional settings. Still, perhaps the thing that makes this show so appealing is its fairly simple premise and casting requirements. If you have four gifted comedic actors, regardless of budget and set complexity, you can do this show. And STL Shakespeare certainly has those four gifted performers, as well as a fun approach and excellent pacing and setting.

In his note in the program, director Dustin S. Massie makes much of the European tradition of Clowns, which becomes the inspiration for this production. The sense of “clowning” is there from the very start of the show, when all four cast members (Phil Leveling, Kelly Schnider, Rebecca Loughridge, and Brian Kappler) appear onstage, wandering amid the prop-strewn set and playing around with the various props while a lively soundtrack plays. Eventually, the four come together to tell a story, that of The 39 Steps, and each cast member takes a role–or more appropriately, roles. In fact, the only actor who plays only one role is Leveling, who plays Richard Hannay, a resident of 1930s London who reluctantly becomes the center of a murder mystery, a spy plot, and a nationwide manhunt. Schnider appears as two prominent women in the story–the mysterious Anabella Schmidt, who plays an ominous and important role in the beginning of the story; and later Pamela Edwards, who finds herself forced to work with Hannay when she–like almost everyone else in the story–suspects him of foul play. All the other characters in the story–and there are many–are played by Loughridge and Kappler. It’s a sweeping story, leading from Hannay’s small flat in London to the Scottish countryside and elsewhere, and involving much pre-World War II international intrigue as well as a great deal of hilarity along the way, both in the situations and in the portrayals by this excellent cast of “clowns”.

The actors are clearly having a great time here, making the most of their roles as clowns and as the characters they portray. The comic timing is excellent as well. Leveling makes an ideal suave, witty, perpetually clueless Hannay, well-matched by the adept Schnider as two distinct and important women, and especially in her second and larger role as Pamela. The chemistry between these two fuels their story, and it works well. Loughbridge and Kappler are also full of enthusiasm and energy in their various roles, ranging from a music hall performance due to random spies to a married couple of Scottish innkeepers, to much, much more. The physical comedy is a highlight here as well, with all four performers. It’s their interaction and impeccable timing that make this show as hilarious and riveting as it is, but the setting certainly helps, as well. A result of the terrific work of set and lighting designer Devin Lowe, costume designer Kayla Lindsey, sound designer Michelle Paladin, and props designers Massie and Paladin, the stage at Tower Grove Baptist Church as been transformed into a space reminiscent of an attic of old treasures, strewn with the materials that make the story, along with an appropriately tone-setting soundtrack.

The 39 Steps works well as an affectionate send-up of Hitchcock and the classic spy genre as well as of English music hall style entertainment, in addition to being a prime showcase for a strong cast of gifted comic actors. The “clowns” are out in force in this production, and the result is delightful. It’s another excellent comedy from St. Louis Shakespeare.

St. Louis Shakespeare is presenting The 39 Steps at Tower Grove Baptist Church until September 7, 2019

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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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