Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Olney’s 'The 39 Steps' is a Fun-filled Escape

No one is safe as Olney Theatre Center presents THE 39 STEPS. Photo Credit: Stan Barouh.

If you were told that a play about violent murders, espionage, romance, hairbreadth escapes, and stealing national security secrets would be a laugh-a-minute, you would definitely raise your eyebrows in wonderment. But in the Olney Theatre Center’s presentation of The 39 Steps on the Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab stage, that is exactly what happens.
Here the spoof of the classic 1935 Alfred Hitchcock adventure thriller with the same title is theatre at its best. Director Clay Hopper, who is also Olney’s associate artistic director, took the adaptation of the film by Patrick Barlow and had as much fun with it as the audience did. To augment the farce, several references to other famous Hitchcock movies made cameo appearances throughout the plot, notably Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, and Rear Window.
A kiss can mean many things in Hitchcock's suspenseful farce, THE 39 STEPS starring Jeffries Thaiss & Susan Lynskey. Photo Credit: Stan Barouh.

Following successful runs in London and Madrid, The 39 Steps did well on Broadway with 771 performances under its belt until it closed in January 2010. In that time the play garnered two Tony Awards in 2008—one for lighting design and the other for sound design—and was nominated for four others. It also received the Drama Desk Award in 2008 for Unique Theatrical Experience. The play ran off-Broadway for another year until January 2011.

What distinguishes this production from other plays—comedies or dramas—is the fact that only four actors play some 150 roles. At Olney they do it flawlessly and with precision. Jeffries Thaiss (Witness for the Prosecution, Dinner with Friends at Olney) plays the central character Richard Hannay. He is onstage virtually the entire length of the play, and is simply superb.

Evan Casey, Jason Lott and Susan Lynskey are remarkable in their ability to take on multiple roles with varying English or Scottish dialects. They burnish their talents not only in assuming a wide range of characters that demands lightning fast costume changes, but they also work their tails off doubling as stagehands to execute the myriad scene changes by moving props and scenery around in all different ways.

Sometimes the actors play several characters all in the same scene, rapidly exchanging coats and hats with one another at an eye-popping, vaudevillian pace. They accomplished these frenetic feats without missing a beat. Major credit goes to director Hopper for guiding this mayhem to deliver a cohesive outcome. Even with the chaotic staging, the plot was easy enough to follow, whether one saw the Hitchcock movie or not.
Jason Lott & Evan Casey portray over 100 characters while chasing in their pursuit of Richard Hannay (Jeffries Thaiss) in Olney Theatre Center's THE 39 STEPS. Photo Credit: Stan Barouh.
This farce mirrors the plot of the film. Richard Hannay, a solid but ordinary Londoner, went to the theater one evening to witness the extraordinary, superhuman abilities of “Mr. Memory” who can absorb even the most arcane facts and spew them out robotically to the audience. A gunshot is fired in the theater, and Hannay then encounters a woman, Annabella Schmidt, who claims that she is a spy. She is being pursued by assassins who found out she uncovered a scheme to steal British military secrets. This caper is led by a man with the top joint missing from one of his fingers, who heads an espionage organization called the “39 Steps.”

Annabella convinces Hannay to take her back to his flat to spend the night. The next morning he finds her with a bread knife in her back, dead. Hannay, realizing he will be blamed for the murder, participates in a string of action-packed escapes from police and foreign agents that includes the famous train escape and an airplane chase while at the same time, pursuing the head of the “39 Steps.”

Hannay gets involved with another woman named Pamela who had turned him in to police, not once but twice, until she realizes at the end he had been telling the truth from the start. Without delving further into the plot, what ensues on stage are masterful performances by the actors and superb technical work under the direction of Eric Knauss and his crew.

Though the set is spartan, it is made to resemble a big production primarily as a result of the plethora of different characters appearing throughout and the clever use of lighting, sound, costuming and props. The actors make use of the entire stage, and there are scenes where the actors venture off the stage and engage the audience. Credit veteran Production Stage Manager Renee E. Yancee, along with Hopper, for pulling the pieces together so effectively.

Lighting Designer Nicholas Houfek employs perfect lighting sequences to denote “dramatic” moments. Projections Designer JJ Kaczynski presents outstanding background silhouettes.

Sound Designer Alex Neumann adds fabulous sound effects manifested by the sounds of water, broken glass, gun shots and other accessories to the plot. He also pipes in lively background music to augment each scene.

Costume designer Pei Lee must have had fun putting together the 1930’s London and Scotland wardrobe for all those characters. She did an outstanding job in creating apparel that can easily be stripped off and replaced rapidly for the numerous costume changes.

And then there are the props, with credit going to Scenic Designer Cristina Todesco for creativity and economy. Not many props onstage to be sure, but oh, so creative! Two battered trunks are used not only as storage for other props but also double as the roof of the train, car seats, airplane, hotel desk, tables and beds—just to name a few applications. These trunks are as integral to the presentation as any of the other play’s elements.

As mentioned previously, Jeffries Thaiss is tremendous as Hannay. His abundant background on the Olney stage and other regional theatre productions as well as daytime television (As the World Turns, One Life to Live) serve him well with a polished performance.
Jason Lott and Evan Casey also have considerable experience performing at Olney and other regional theatre venues. Officially, their character names were Clown One and Clown Two, respectively, but they played dozens of roles in The 39 Steps. They were extraordinary as well as over-the-top (in a good way) with their dialects, voice inflections, movements, comical timing, and quick costume and scene changes.

Susan Lynskey has “only” three parts to play but they are critical to the story. She played them convincingly and competently. Lynskey, too, has substantial experience in theatre (Helen Hayes nomination for Outstanding Supporting Actress in The Laramie Project) and television including The Wire. Her only flaw was that in a few dialogues, she did not project her voice to the extent the other actors did. Nonetheless, she was perfectly suited for this production.

While the story is entertaining in its own right, the manner in which this farce is presented IS the story. With its stellar acting and imaginative, polished theatrical elements, The 39 Steps at Olney is amusing and a triumph through and through.
Running Time: 1 hour and 45 minutes with one intermission.

Olney Theatre’s production of The 39 Steps plays through May 27, 2012 at the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, MD. For tickets call 301-924-3400 or order online.

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