Run, Don’t Walk (it’s a chase after all) to the Thrillingly Hilarious “The 39 Steps” at Lyric Arts Main Street Stage in Anoka

Brendan Veerman, Jake Sung-Guk Sullivan, Zoe Hartigan, Kyler Chase Photo by Justin Cox

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/ .

Bloomsday at Lyric Arts in Anoka

Photo by Twin Cities Headshots

I like the Lyric Arts in Anoka, it’s a good space for productions of all sizes. I’ve seen possibly my favorite production of RENT there but it’s also well suited for more intimate productions like Bloomsday. A four person two character play set in Dublin Ireland. The stage is transformed into a square on a Dublin street, it’s scope is impressive for such a small scale story. There is a trilogy of films that I am very fond of by Richard Linklater known as the Before Trilogy. This play reminded in parts of the first film Before Sunrise. Like that film we are basically following a young man traveling abroad and the young woman he meets in Vienna and spends the day with. That too is an intimate story were we are really only concerned with the two characters and it is set against a large canvas. Also Like that film the two end their time together going their separate ways. Don’t worry I didn’t spoil the ending, we come to understand that near the beginning. Whereas in the Before Trilogy we revisit this couple every 9 years, in this play it has been 35 years. The conceit of the play is that the characters at 55 are able to interact with the characters at 20. The reunion of the 55 year old versions of Robbie and Caithleen is brought about by Robert, who is looking back at that day and regrets how it ended.

The older and wiser Robert and Cait performed wonderfully by Jeffery Goodson and Lolly Foy. Goodson, brings a yearning and regret to the role, that mirrors that feeling we’ve all had of, what if. That decision we made or action we didn’t take that we are kicking ourselves for later in life. But his sense of regret is intensified by a feeling that Caithleen was his one chance and he blew it. He wants desperately to change the past, to tell his younger self to do things differently. Or, not being able to do that, to tell the younger Caithleen not to make such an impression on him that he’ll still be yearning for her 35 years later. Goodson sells all of this, you can feel his frustration with his younger self and also that he still sees the same thing in Caithleen that he saw 35 years ago, and you can see the ache in his eyes. Foy goes a different route with Cait, she brings an eccentricity to the 55 year old that is born from living by her own reality for the intervening 35 years. She seems less eager to try and get the younger versions together, she seems to feel that it was better for Robert to have not been with her. She has her reasons for that and they make sense. But we can’t help but think that where she is now, might not be the same if they had gotten together. Foy plays Cait as a woman who has made peace with her demons and is beyond worrying what people think of her. She gets her laughs with that, but also embodies Cait with real emotion. She feels much more warmly to her younger self than Robert does to his. Where he felt frustration, she feels compassion.

Of the younger versions Gillian Constable stands out. She is natural and beguiling as Caithleen whereas unfortunately, Brandon Homan is too broad. The key to the before Trilogy is the chemistry between the leads, it’s what you need to create the palpable longing within the audience so that they feel and understand what could be between these characters. For this story to work we as the audience need to feel that these two people should be together, we need to feel that it is a tragedy they didn’t get together. That will engage us in the time that Robbie and Caithleen spend together, and make the regret and longings of Robert and Cait all the more powerful. Chemistry is impossible to cast, it’s either there or it isn’t, and a well written story and dialogue played by good actors can still sell the story. Three quarters of this play works, the quarter that doesn’t undermines the whole. It isn’t that Holman is necessarily a bad actor, he’s just a different style of actor than what was needed here. From the program I see that he has been performing with Children’s Theater groups and I suspect that he is perfectly suited for those roles. This needed to be subtler, that’s the best way I can think to put it. We have no trouble seeing what he sees in Caithleen, but we have to see what she would see in him as well, or it doesn’t really work.

This is the area premiere of the play by Steven Dietz and directed by Elena Giannetti. It’s a good play and I’d love to see it performed again. With the younger characters relationship better realized, I think it will only make the older characters parts even more effective. I liked the design of the set Brian J. Proball, more than it’s execution. The idea of building such a large scale city square and then telling this small scale story within it worked. I felt that the actual craftsmanship of it wasn’t up to the Lyric Arts usual standards, maybe I was just too close to it, I do love the front row. The lighting (Shannon Elliott) and sound (Lea Brucker) design was well integrated, used to create focus at different points, when they quoted passages from Joyce or when they froze time. Thunder plays a role, and it’s subtling suggested without taking us out of the play or taking our focus from the characters. This isn’t a home run for Lyric Arts, but it is definitely worth taking in. It’s a solid play with some first rate performances.

Bloomsday runs through January 26th for more information and for tickets visit http://www.lyricarts.org/