By Ladd Wendelin
What is The 39 Steps? Answer: A suspenseful and hilarious 2-hour Hitchcockian pot-boiler turned manic quick-change comedy -- not to mention, the crown jewel of the Nebraska Repertory Theatre’s 2011 season.
Based on Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film, and adapted from the novel by John Buchan, the adventure begins when listless bachelor Richard Hannay (Dan Rodden) meets German expatriate Annabelle Schmidt (Melissa Lewis) while attending a literal question and answer session conducted by the magnificent Mr. Memory (Robie Hayek) in a London theater. Schmidt claims to have a top secret bit of military information, and it’s not long before Hannay has her over to his flat for a spot of...murder. From there, the action follows Hannay, an innocent fugitive on the run who risks the perils of train travel, is pursued across the Scottish moors, and stumbles over Hitchcock film references all the while.
And the question remains – What is The 39 Steps? Peril at every corner. Adventure begins and ends in a theater. You get the picture.
The 39 Steps is also one of the funniest of Hitchcock’s early films, and, as such, it has been cleverly adapted into a four person quick-change comedy by Patrick Barlow, who retains the wit, suspense and action of the screenplay. Each member of the cast (excepting Rodden’s Hannay) plays multiple roles along with Hayek and Matt Penn, who play at least at least 20 characters each, if not more. All of the scene and costumes changes are performed by the cast in full view of the audience against the backdrop of Jeffery Stander’s impeccable set, or rather, within it. His striking design – the backstage of an old theater, winged by two box seats – suggests the wonderful things that are possible in the theater environment. We can go anywhere and be anything.
The other remarkable quality of The 39 Steps at the Rep is its cast, who perform a theatrical magic trick, or several, I should say, by maintaining essential (sometimes elusive) comedic rhythm, good timing, and bringing physicality and voices to the multitude of distinct characters. You don’t have to guess who the actors are portraying, even if you’ve never seen the film. The accents, presentation, and reactions to one another were mostly quite consistent. So were my gut-busting bursts of laughter.
Much like Hitchcock’s maligned protagonists, we find ourselves plopped into the middle of the action, caught off guard, discovering that everything is not what it seems. The lights come up, the actors come out to play, and we do the best we can to make sense of what we’re seeing to the point of half-believing the transient illusion. Escape is entirely possible within the broad plains and spacious palaces of your imagination, and it’s also the best reason to pay a visit to the theater.
What is The 39 Steps? Answer: A jolly good time! It doesn’t let up, from the start of the play to the final curtain when the actors take their bows.
If you want to find out for yourself what The 39 Steps really is, you’ve still got two more opportunities; this Wednesday, August 3rd and Friday, Aug. 5th, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $20 general admission, $18 for UNL faculty and staff, senior citizens, military, and $10 for UNL students and can be purchased by calling 402-472-4747 or 1-800-432-3231.
Visit the Nebraska Repertory Theatre online at http://www.unl.edu/rep.