leave your cares at the door to 39 steps

Topeka Civic Theater’s production of “The 39 Steps” is, in the words of one enthusiastic audience member, “funny, funny, funny!”

Billed as Monty-Python-Meets-Hitchcock, it was described by actor Walt Boyd as “first, a very loving tribute to [Alfred] Hitchcock, and second, a tribute to the artistry of stage craft.”

Amen to both.

Hitchcock fans may have seen the 1935 black-and-white film version of this story. If so, they will recognize the storyline, but in this parody, the suspense is twisted into comedy. More challenging than turning a spy movie into a farce is the fact that this is done with a cast of four actors.

Boyd remains constant throughout. His Richard Hannay encounters one incredible scenario after another. Falsely suspected of murder, he tries to clear himself by following clues from London to Scotland and ultimately discovering the meaning of the 39 steps.  When police search his train, he attempts to throw them off by embracing the Hitchcock-hallmark-blonde traveling alone. After a lengthy (and he obviously thinks potent), kiss, he confides to the blonde and begs her to keep his secret. She does not. Rather, she alerts the authorities and a hair-raising pursuit on the moving train ensues.. Hannay is forced to jump.

Amazingly, this is depicted by 4 people, a few trunks, and some truly amazing backdrops and lighting. And it works.

Staging “The 39 Steps” was complex; this production is more of a well-oiled machine than perhaps anything I have ever seen. There is no weak link because there cannot be. Any piece that does not work ruins the entire effect. In six weeks of practice and preparation, Topeka Civic Theater has produced a thoroughly enjoyable and truly incredible show. The focus, ability, and sheer hard work necessary for this production boggles my mind for a community theater.

Hitchcock never cast Amber Dickinson in one of his movies. This is only because he never saw her. She is simply beautiful and is able to carry the burden of three very different roles almost without the audience’s realization that it is her each time. Bruce Smith and Jason R. Smith (in his TCTA debut) obviously and ludicrously switch from one character to the next, turning around, switching hats, changing their voices or accents – they are scene-steelers. Jason even has one costume that is an old-gray-haired woman on one side and a man on the other. It is hysterical because he has the ability to make it so. I hope this is the first of many TCTA performances for this talented young man.

Bruce Smith so fits the mold of British comedic actor that you might assume he just got off the plane fresh from an appearance on BBC. There are scenes that are on the surface so very simple, but so demanding of intuition and timing that they cannot be carried off without dedicated actors. Kudos, one and all!

Boyd talked about the physical demands and commented that he had run more in the last five weeks than in years prior. He jogs back and forth across the stage in one scene, with the shadows of small planes searching for him behind the backdrop, ala “North by Northwest.” He also commented on the ability of TCTA’s director, Shannon Reilly, to “bring the most out of people.”  The success of this production depended on it.

We go to the theater or to movies and concerts for an experience. We want to leave our cares and concerns by the door.  This play not only delivers that, it demonstrates the creative process and, just as Boyd said, the “artistry of stage craft.”

I wondered if a younger audience would pick up on the references or nuances of Hitchock or the whole spy genre. Would a teenager that doesn’t watch Turner Classic movies like this?

The laughter of a 10-year-old boy in the audience answered a resounding, “Yes!”

Performances run through June 23. Call 785-357-211 for information.

[Review by Deb Bisel | June 2012]

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