“The 39 Steps” Live in Minneapolis

17 11 2010

A look at “The 39 Steps,” currently playing at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Minnesota

By Keating DuGarm, Hitchcock and Me’s Midwest Foreign Correspondent

As frequent readers of this blog know, “The 39 Steps” has been adapted by playwright Patrick Barlow to the stage, following the storyline of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film along with elements from the novel by John Buchan. The original novel and movie helped to establish the modern-day spy story.

As most of you remember, this story involves Richard Hannay, who gets blamed for a murder he did not commit and goes on the run from London to the Scottish Highlands trying to stop spies who are trying to smuggle a vital secret out of the country in the pre-war United Kingdom. This war is World War I in the novel and World War II in the movie and play.

The Guthrie Theater’s production of this play proves to be similar in the kinetic spirit that Adam talked about the New York version having last spring during his “39 Days of the 39 Steps.” You can view this short video and compare it to the ones Adam posted:

This play features more than 150 characters which are brought to life by a cast of four actors. All four are based in the Twin Cities in Minnesota. Robert O. Berdahl plays Richard Hannay, the bored everyman who gets involved in secrets and spies. Berdahl graduated from Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota. Sarah Agnew plays all three female characters who are also potential lovers for Hannay. The wig design (probably by the costume designer) for her worked most effectively.

Jim Lichtscheidl and Luverne Seifert play the clowns, which is what their characters are called in Patrick Barlow’s play. They portray the huge supporting case including incompetent detectives, slapstick vaudeville players, political speakers, odd innkeepers, women and men. This quick change process is explained by costume designer Amelia Cheever in this video:

All the actors are effective, but the switching from character to character of the clowns, sometimes within seconds using only hats, makes one appreciate the craft of these thespians.

The set and props get the audience involved from the get go. Sheep on wheels represent a flock of sheep, and life-size kilted cutouts operated by the actors comprise a huge Scottish political parade. Travel trunks become trains. As the characters crawl up and down on these trunks, they flap their hats and coats to indicate a strong wind. In this interview, which you can read here, set designer Richard Hoover discusses the production.

Hannay’s journey comprises a sequence of shadow puppets invented by Michael Sommers which includes references to “Psycho,” “North by Northwest,” and “Rear Window” as well as other non-Hitchcock classics like “King Kong. Naturally, this includes a cameo by Alfred Hitchcock in the form of a silhouette, a la “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.”

Much of the dialogue is used exactly from the movie. Fast changes of costume and smart theatrical tricks are utilized to show character changes. The director makes this all work nicely.

“The 39 Steps” is directed by Joel Sass who usually works at the local Jungle Theater. At the Jungle Theater, he directed the suspenseful “Hitchcock Blonde” where he displayed a true feeling for Hitchcock-type suspense. In this production, Mr. Sass seems to enjoy taking down those same conventions. Joel talks about this production here:

This play has much in common with sketch comedy like Monty Python. As in any sketch comedy show, some bits work better than others depending on one’s sense of humor. I love sketch comedy and I enjoyed much of this. The Scottish innkeeper characters and the male “clowns” dressing up and speaking as women reminded me specifically of Monty Python. In fact, Eric Idle of Monty Python stated about the New York version of this play that: “Everyone should see this. It’s brilliant!”

Here is a rather well-done guide to the play, book and movie in all its incarnations.

Also, long-time readers will remember that Adam was featured on the stage for a post-play discussion after one of the New York City performances of “The Thirty-Nine Steps.” The Guthrie theater is doing that as well following the matinee performances on Saturday, November 20, Sunday November 28 and Saturday, December 4. There, audiences will have an opportunity to enjoy a post-play discussion with actors, artists, and theater staff.

This entertaining version of the play runs through December 19, 2010 and you can get more information here. All Hitchcock fans who find themselves anywhere near the Twin Cities before December 19 are advised to go!

Thanks to my pal and fellow Hitchcock fan Mike Callies, who works at the Guthrie, for attending a production of this show with me!




2 responses

21 11 2010

Great show. The Guthrie Theater is a great venue.

25 11 2010

Wow, this sounds amateurish… while at the same time, creative as hell. I’ve directed and been involved backstage in some plays (school) and 4 actors potraying 150 characters… I can’t even grasp the complexities that might come up during that kind of a production.

Thanks for the heads up, wish I was nearby so I could check it out…

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