Theatre Review: “The 39 Steps” at the Indiana Repertory Theatre

On Saturday afternoon I drove to downtown Indianapolis to see the Indiana Repertory Theatre’s production of “The 39 Steps.”  It was adapted by Patrick Barlow from the novel by John Buchanon, from the movie of Alfred Hitchcock licensed by IV Global Entertainment Limited, and from an original concept by Nobby Dimon and Simon Corble.  Peter Amster directed it for the IRT, where Janet Allen is the artistic director and Steven Stolen is the managing director.

I now know that the stage show was nominated for the 2008 Tony Award, and I now know that one of mystery master Alfred Hitchcock’s most famous noir films is “The 39 Steps,” but I didn’t know anything about either of these two facts going in to the IRT on Saturday.

And it didn’t matter.  This show is very accessible and so much fun!  It is a suspenseful, funny treat for stage fans and film fans alike, not to mention mystery fans.

What the Show Is About

On one level, it is the story of Richard Hannay, an Englishman in 1935 London.  He goes out to refresh himself with a “mindless” night at the theatre and finds himself thrown into dangerous matters of national security.   His sense of honor demands that he go to Scotland to find and protect the secret of “the 39 steps,” even though he doesn’t know what it means.  Along the way he gets involved with several beautiful women and dozens of other people, all with agendas of their own.

On another level, the show is about loving and respecting both film and stage.  This show makes fun of the unique characteristics of both art forms, while also celebrating them.  It says, “We are proud of the many things that stage art can do that film can not, but we also know that myriad deliberate and subtle choices go into making a good film, too, and we enjoy analyzing them and acting out the techniques.”  When the show mimics the perspectives of film, it is funny because they are unexpected on stage, but it is never mean-spirited.

Sometimes the show says, “Could a film actor make you believe all of this activity in the moment night after night?  Film making is for wussies!” but it also acknowledges its own limitations as a live stage show and makes fun of itself – for example, when there are more characters on stage at once than there are actors available to play them.

On yet another level, the show is about loving and respecting the work of film maker Alfred Hitchcock in particular.  I really only know about his work by reputation, but even I recognized the titles of his movies and laughed when they came up as lines in conversation during the show.  I bet there are even more references to his style and content that a true Alfred Hitchcock fan would recognize and relish.

Artistic Considerations

There are only four actors.  Only four!  Even though I knew intellectually that three of them were playing multiple roles, I still was startled when only four actors came out to bow at the end.

Matthew Brumlow is the earnest yet dashing hero, Richard Hannay.  He is hilarious and lovable simply because…well, forgive my stereotyping, but it is simply because he is so very English.

It is also because Matthew uses his full range of physicality – from splayed instant slumber to the lift of one eyebrow over a modest smirk – very specifically and purposefully, yet seemingly effortlessly.  The other three actors do, too.  And their timing is exquisite.

Sarah Nealis changes accents and attitudes at least twice but is always some sort of beautiful, sexy woman that just happens to be, quite awkwardly and/or temptingly, in Richard Hannay’s path. 

Rob Johansen is “Clown 1” and Tom Aulino is “Clown 2.”   They never appear in clown costume (that I recall) but they appear as just about everything else.  I think they are called clowns because their many fast character changes require the precise balance and the exuberant energy of a circus act.  They change convincingly, seamlessly, back and forth between characters – sometimes with only a few words for each!   Oh, my, they are fun to watch.

The design elements enhance the humor, the suspense, and the film vs. stage teasing in several delicious ways.  The set (designed by Linda Buchanan) seems pretty bare at first glance, but it is framed with the rich, red velvet curtain and downstage sconces that I imagine were part of every theatre in the 1930s.  Theatre trunks and other odds-n-ends are plenty to suggest richer, more complete sets – especially when accompanied by Michael Lincoln’s witty lighting design – but then one of them opens to reveal something unexpectedly detailed, for another laugh. 

Both Michael’s lighting (he was assisted by Molly Tiede) and Victoria DeIorio’s sound design make the audience participants in the story in unexpectedly funny ways.  Victoria’s compositions and sound design also include a satisfyingly rich array of aural textures; if her sounds were fabrics, they would range from satin to tweed.

Many of the costume pieces (designed very cleverly by Tracy Dorman, with wigs by Mary Schilling-Martin and additional wigs by Heather Fleming) serve as props for the actors to play with as much as they serve as descriptions of the characters that wear them.  I loved one of the women’s weather-vane pigtails, for example.

Nathan Garrison is the (I imagine) of necessity very wide-awake stage manager.  Richard J. Roberts was the dramaturg – an especially fun job for this play, I bet.  I wonder if he got to watch all of Hitchcock’s movies as part of his research?  That’s what I would like to do next!

Audience and Appeal Factors

If you love entertaining theatre that is both smart and funny, cerebral and physical…

If you love the films of Alfred Hitchcock…

If you love to feel proud and delighted by what stage performers and designers can do…

If you love a good story filled with both laugh-out loud humor and yelp-producing suspense…

If you loved the polished playfulness of the IRT’s production of “Around the World in 80 Days” last year…

If you loved the polished inventiveness of the IRT’s production of “Our Town” (also directed by Peter Amster) in 2007…

Well, then, this is the show for you.

As for your kids…well, let’s see.  “The 39 Steps” is a bit darker than “Around the World in 80 Days.”  There are some scary moments and a death or two.  There are also some oblique references to sex and several sexy-funny moments.  On the other hand, “The 39 Steps” is also less purely reflective than “Our Town.” If your kids don’t get all of the historical and artistic references in “The 39 Steps,” they can still easily enjoy the physical humor if they have a little patience at the very beginning while Richard Hannay is setting up the story.

So…I wouldn’t suggest this show for little kids or even all kids in elementary school, but it would probably be okay for most people in middle school or older.

I would recommend it without hesitation to just about any group of adults, whether they know each other well or not, and whether they know much about Alfred Hitchcock or not.

Box Office

“The 39 Steps” continues on the Indiana Repertory Theatre’s main stage with a good variety of performance times through Saturday, May 14, 2011.  For tickets and more information, please call the IRT ticket office (317)635-5252 or visit www.irtlive.com.

‘See you at the theatres!

Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com

P.S. – Follow me (@IndyTheatre) and/or the topic #indystage on Twitter.com.  I never tweet during a show (and I beg you not to take your phone out during a show either, for any reason, because light is as distracting as noise!) but I often tweet first impressions during intermission or immediately after a show.

P.P. S. – Both photos above were taken by Roger Mastroianni.  Roll your mouse over each to see the actors’ names.

4 thoughts on “Theatre Review: “The 39 Steps” at the Indiana Repertory Theatre”

  1. If these are photos by Roger Mastroianni then I’m 95% sure they are pictures from the Cincinatti production of the show and not IRT’s (and thus, the people in the photos are not the local actors). Julie took pictures for this show, but these were acquired for publicity because photos were needed earlier than IRT’s could be taken.

    Just helping ya make sure your info is correct. 🙂

  2. Or maybe the same actors were in the Cincinnati show and I don’t know what I’m talking about…haha

  3. Yeah…that 5% chance that was leftover… 🙂
    Carry on with your blog and just ignore me. I should probably get some sleep.

  4. No worries, Zach. I always appreciate it whenever anyone a) reads my blog and b) lets me know if there is a chance that factual information on my blog is inaccurate or even misleading. Thank you for both!

    No one from the IRT said anything to me about these photos being from another production. It would have been nice if they had, but I also appreciate that they provided me with usable photos in a timely manner.

    (Side rant: You wouldn’t believe how many theatres supposedly value what I do as a volunteer here on Indy Theatre Habit and expect me to post my reviews a nano-second after I leave their buildings, but don’t provide me with everything I need from them. I waste – correction, I used to waste – a lot of time asking and asking and asking.)

    I also know that Rob Johansen did do this show somewhere in Ohio before doing it here in Indianapolis. Maybe Sarah Nealis was part of the Ohio cast, too. In any case, it is definitely him in these photos and I am 99% sure that it is Sarah in them, too.

    Other thoughts: I was surprised to receive only a handful of photos to choose from this time. The IRT usually sends me a million! Or at least more than any other theatre. (2nd most is Beef and Boards. 3rd is the Phoenix. Several others tie for 4th.) It is so much fun to look at all of the photos as I remember with pleasure the live experience of the show itself! This is one of my favorite volunteer job-related perks.

    I was also surprised and a little worried to read that these photos had been taken by someone other than Julie Curry. Nothing against Roger Mastroianni, but I am glad to hear that Julie is okay!

    I also remembered the balcony differently, but sometimes theatres send me rehearsal photos from before the sets have been “set” so I didn’t think anything more about that.

    Anyway, thanks again for reading, Zach. I hope you get to see the IRT’s production of “The 39 Steps,” if you haven’t already. (Did they hire you to record it on video it by any chance? I know a lot of theatres do hire you for that.)

    It is a fun show. 🙂

    Hope

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