Though he was the auteur of eerie, Alfred Hitchcock always found the perfect spot to add a splash of humor to his movies. This includes his 1935 British thriller The 39 Steps, widely recognized as an early masterpiece of the genre. Now playing at Annapolis Shakespeare Company is a stage adaptation that has not just a splash of humor, but an ocean.
The 2005 parody, written by British playwright Patrick Barlow from a previous adaptation, emerges from the Highlands fog with the basics of the movie intact, but with all the characters played by just four cast members: Brock Vickers as Richard Hannay, the dutiful hero who finds himself caught up in an international spy conspiracy; Sarah Stewart Chapin as the three women whom Hannay encounters along his journey; and Andy McCain and Justino Brokaw as…well, they’re billed as Clown 1 and Clown 2, but they play a multitude of characters, hilariously, from cops to spies to Scottish innkeepers.
There are plenty of clever references to Hitchcock’s more well-known movies like North By Northwest and Rear Window, with physical comedy aplenty and creative staging by director Sally Boyett. From the opening vaudeville-like scene at the Palladium in which we see the Amazing Mister Memory (Brokaw) and his manager (McCain), none of these actors gets a break, especially our two clowns. It’s a frenzied and fun race to save the country from evil, and these players sure seem to be enjoying the journey.
Vickers’ Hannay is suave, sly and bored—until he decides to do something “mindless and trivial … something utterly pointless. I know … the theater!” While watching Mr. Memory he is approached by Annabella, a thick-accented beauty who says she is a spy. She talks Hannay into taking her home, where she warns him to watch for two men lurking outside his window. She ends up across his lap with a knife in her back. His hilarious escape is just the first of many comical conundrums Hannay will face.
Chapin moves deftly from the darkly mysterious Annabella to Margaret, the innocent, shy wife of a jealous Scottish farmer, and later Pamela, a beautiful woman who suspects Hannay yet finds herself his reluctant, handcuffed companion. Chapin’s accents are spot on, and they are made all the more realistic by how she carries her body from one character to the next.
Speaking of voices and bodies, both McCain and Brokaw’s physical work would be mesmerizing if we had time to digest it, but we’re too busy laughing at their delightful depictions of dozens of characters. Our first taste comes at a train station, when Hannay is sitting with two salesmen, our clowns of course, who transform instantly and hilariously to a policeman, a porter, a paper boy, an old lady and back, all in the blink of a clever spin and a hat change. Later, they bounce from the married keepers of a Scottish inn to dastardly spies, right in front of us.
None of the changes, as clever and funny as they are in themselves, would work without both McCain and Brokaw imbuing each character with at least a trace of realism, no matter how briefly each appears. A lot of that has to do with the very real dialects we are hearing—Annapolis Shakespeare’s dialect coach Nancy Krebs must have worked overtime on this one.
Excellent lighting by Adam Mendelson, sound and costume design by Boyett, and projections by Joshua McKerrow make Hannay’s journey feel real, whether he’s in a train station, dropping from Scotland’s Forth Bridge, or being chased by a biplane. Some of the bits fall flat— every mention of The 39 Steps, for example, brings a sudden bright light, an ominous clang, and a freeze pose by the actors, a gimmick that interrupts the flow of the action rather than evokes the laughs it seeks. Of course, later audiences may respond better than the staid group I attended with. I hope so, because this cast is marvelous, and well-supported by solid technical production.
Alfred Hitchcock once said, “Suspense doesn’t have any value if it’s not balanced by humor.” Annapolis Shakespeare’s The 39 Steps tips the balance solidly in the direction of humor; Hitchcock would approve.
About two hours with one intermission; FSa 8pm, SaSu 2pm, runs through March 8. $65 w/discounts, rsvp: 410-415-3513 or annapolisshakespeare.org