Review by Jack Crumley of The 39 Steps: Falcon Theatre
The Falcon Theatre in Newport is celebrating its 30th season and it’s kicking things off with a hilarious sendup of one of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thrillers, “The 39 Steps.” I have to admit, my only awareness of “The 39 Steps” is from an old (and brilliant) Sesame Street bit from when I was a kid. The 1935 film is loosely based on a 1915 man-on-the-run adventure novel about hero Richard Hannay. The Griff Bludworth-directed production that’s running on Monmouth St through October 12 is a 2005 parody that’s full of quick changes, cartoonish characters, and some occasionally improvised lines (if the audience is lucky). Turns out my awareness of the Sesame Street segment is more apropos than I thought.
In “The 39 Steps,” Richard Hannay finds himself caught up in international intrigue when Annabella Schmidt talks her way back to his apartment where she hints at the existence of a sinister conspiracy before she’s killed. Hannay finds himself on the run from the law and members of the nefarious, titular organization trying to tie up loose ends so their plot to construct a silent war plane can come to fruition. Picture that story, but funny. Very very funny.
This play is written to only have four actors: one playing Richard Hannay, one playing Annabella Schmidt and two other women characters, Margaret and Pamela, then two “Clown” parts that handle somewhere around a dozen other characters, each. It’s a boatload of work as Hannay is constantly running or being dragged around the stage; the Schmidt/Margaret/Pamela actor is vamping it up, running with Hannay, or changing into the next costume; and the two Clowns are doing all that same running and costume-changing at roughly double the pace and volume. Even if the show wasn’t uproariously funny (which it very much is), it’s a marvel to watch the logistics of all the entrances and exits play out in front of you.
There is such a manic energy to this show that can only be pulled off by an exceptionally talented cast. Ryan J Poole plays Richard Hannay as a kind of “Everyman who knew too little.” He connects with the audience right away in narrating his life up until the point where he goes to the theatre and meets Schmidt, then he’s caught up in a whirlwind of ridiculous danger, intrigue, and (sometimes unwelcomed, sometimes awkward) romance. He’s often on the receiving end of various goofs and sight-gags in the show, and he’s got a knack for handling the unexpected. Early on in the opening night performance, he’s trying to pull down a window shade and it won’t catch. He’s tugging it down multiple times and mutters “this went so much better in rehearsal” just before it stops in the right spot. The timing of the line went so well with the end of the action that I had no idea if that was ad-libbed or not. Two other uses of that line in later situations that seemed impossible to plan confirmed that was an improvised line the cast just embraced in the moment.
Elizabeth Chinn Molloy plays Schmidt/Margaret/Pamela. Schmidt is a classic femme fatale with a ridiculously thick German accent, Margaret is the desperate, young wife of a Scottish farmer, and Pamela is the woman-on-the-train who ends up caught in the web that Hannay’s stuck in. And Molloy brings a unique energy to each character: Schmidt commands attention, Margaret is meek and sweet, and Pamela is constantly struggling with all of Hannay’s nonsense. You can see her revelling in each of her roles, and she and Poole have excellent chemistry.
Every moment in this production is played to the hilt, and the two Clown roles make up the leading edge of the comedic sword in the metaphor of which I feel like I’m losing the thread of as I type. Ben Jacobs plays one of those clowns. This is his Falcon Theatre debut after touring nationally and internationally in shows over the last five years. His facial expressions and various accents are just the tip of the iceberg of talent he brings to the stage. It’s so hard to highlight just one of his best moments, but a particular favorite is when he’s The Crofter, the Scottish farmer husband of Margaret.
In the other Clown role is Eileen Earnest. In talking with the cast after the show, Eileen told me that both Clown roles are traditionally played by men. Much like my experience seeing NKU’s “Cabaret” with a woman Emcee, after seeing Earnest’s work, I can’t imagine that part NOT being played by a woman. In a particularly brilliant cast, Earnest quite possibly steals the show. Every second she’s on stage, every word she says, every movement she makes is an opportunity for comedy. Her strange voice inflection as she plays the computer-brained Mr Memory, her physicality as one of the thugs chasing Hannay, her deliberate patience as a slow-moving old person who’s hard of hearing with a touch of narcolepsy: every random character she plays is quirky and distinct. She’s paired with Jacobs for nearly every scene, and these two also work together and play off each other splendidly.
Along with such a strong cast, this Bludworth-directed production really shines in the Falcon Theatre space. The intimacy of it really makes all the action on stage seem that much bigger. The set, also designed by Bludworth, is basically just a flat with a red curtain in the middle and doors on either side. That simple piece allows for a variety of scenes, from Hannay’s apartment to a theatrical stage to a farmhouse on the Scottish moors. The inherent theatricality of the red curtain also allows for some really well-executed visual jokes. Also, there are a number of sound and light cues that came off without a hitch. It was really impressive to me even before I learned that this show only had 3 weeks of rehearsal!
This specific production of “The 39 Steps” is one of the funniest plays I’ve ever seen. There’s some mildly suggestive material, and some use of a cap gun, but there’s nothing that would rate this show anything more mature than “PG.” Be ready to watch four people lose themselves in cartoonishly over-the-top roles and be ready to lose your composure laughing at them.
“The 39 Steps” is playing at the Falcon Theatre, 636 Monmouth St in Newport, Kentucky, on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8pm now through October 12, 2019. Tickets are available by calling 513-479-6783 or FalconTheatre.net