Lyric Arts Main Street Stage has made a very smart choice to open their theatre season with The 39 Steps. People are out of the habit of attending live theatre, putting on a dark drama or tragedy is not what people are looking for after having lived through it this last year and a half. What will entice people to come out is something fun, something that will thrill and make you laugh. The 39 Steps is just the ticket. A show that will help you forget the dark days and have you laughing and cheering away those endless days of isolation. It’s just what the Dr. ordered, a laugh filled pursuit to chase away the blues. Let me commend the Lyric Arts leadership and staff for their handling of Covid-19 protocols. All patrons had to provide proof of vaccination or a recent negative Covid test as well as picture ID. In addition, masks must remain on at all times, an extra step that I really think shows their dedication to keeping the audience and the performers safe. Lyric Arts policies are as practical and as safe as they could be. They’ve done the smart thing even if it turns some people away, they understand their responsibility to try and keep everyone as safe as we can while we begin to go back to the things that give us joy.
The 39 Steps has had many incarnations. First, a novel by John Buchan written in 1914 it has been adapted for the screen several times over the 100 plus years since it’s publication. The Most famous of which is undoubtedly, the 1935 film by Alfred Hitchcock. The basic story is of an innocent man thrown into a world of intrigue when he is mistaken for a murderer. His only chance to clear himself and to do his part for Queen and Country is to find the real spies who committed the murder and discover what are the 39 steps. And so begins his journey from London to Scotland and back again, all the while trying to elude the police and the foreign agents also on his trail. This stage adaptation by Patrick Barlow is based more closely on the plot of the Hitchcock film than the novel. Whereas the novel and the film both emphasized thrills and suspense, the play puts the focus squarely on comedy. With a cast of four actors portraying what must be over 100 different characters. A fact made even more astonishing when you take into account that one of the performers plays just one character and another only three. It’s from this conceit that much of the humor flows. One aspect of the humor stems from the scripts acknowledgement that it is a play. With a few planned miscues and intentional mistakes, the author tells us from the beginning, we all know it’s a play. This accomplishes several things at once. First, it allows the audience a larger capacity for suspending disbelief; we’ve acknowledged and go with the idea that three trunks which were just used as seats on the train are now the top of the train. Secondly, the intentional errors made for laughs, can actually help to cover any real mistakes that may take place during the show. Thirdly, much of the humor comes from the high wire act that is trying to play so many different roles, sometimes even simultaneously. That cannot realistically be carried out. If you tried, it would certainly fail but add a wink and lean into it, not just as a way to tell the story but to add humor, the audience is with you.
A show like this succeeds or fails with the cast. This production soars due to the talents of it’s four actors. Kyler Chase plays the lead Richard Hannay, he’s as close as the play gets to a straight man, but he is allowed to also play for laughs. Handling both duties with equal aplomb, he’s not only playing the hero on the run, but on a second layer the dashing matinee idol. He is always playing at two levels, the character and the actor playing the character, which is also a character. Zoe Hartigan portrays three roles, Annabella, the spy and murder victim who sets everything in motion. Margaret, a Scottish farmers wife who aids Hannay in his flight. And finally Pamela, the love interest who at one point is handcuffed and on the run with Hannay. She makes the most of all three roles. The first two are overtly comical characters and she uses her face and body movement to optimize the effect for both. Whether the scene calls for verbal or physical humor she delivers every time. The remainder of the cast are Jake Sung-Guk Sullivan as Clown 1 and Brendan Veerman as Clown 2. There’s not enough space in this review to attempt to cover the various roles they play, each becoming 50 plus characters over the course of the show. The humor of the show lies as much in their performance choices as it does in the script. They are both masters of dialect and physical transformation. The characters are frequently played for humor but that doesn’t make the accomplishment less impressive, they truly make each character distinct and believable. Sullivan and Veerman have a gift for making each role, no matter how minor, feel like a real person even when it’s cartoonish and that, is the secret to comedy. This is one hilarious production.
The production directed by Scott Ford is fast paced without ever jeopardizing our understanding of what is happening. The production designers are: Kyia Britts (Lighting Designer), Emma Kravig (Costume Designer), Peter Lerohl (Scenic Designer), Katie Phillips (Props Designer), Julie Zumsteg (Sound Designer) along with the Choreographer Hannah Weinberg-Goerger. Ford and his collaborators take us into a world where trunks can turn into a train car and a picture frame can become a window frame. All elements of design work together to create enough of an illusion for our perfectly primed brains to fill in the rest. The aforementioned chase along the train cars is a great example of all of the creative elements working together to sell a scene. The actors using motion and wardrobe to create the sense of the wind rushing past them. The lighting, the sound, and props all adding to the illusion allowing us to see it for what it is representing but also laughing at how they are creating it. Again just like the actors, the designers are working on two levels, the representation of the scene in the story, but also the artifice of a theatre company employing creative tricks to accomplish this. This is a production where all departments are working at the top of their game and blending perfectly into a cohesive whole.
The 39 Steps is playing through Oct. 17th at the Lyric Arts Main Stage in Anoka. The 39 Steps is a wildly funny and enjoyable night of theater and the perfect show to relaunch your live theatre going. It’s perfect for a family night out or date night. For more information and to purchase tickets visit: https://www.lyricarts.org/ .