Annapolis Shakespeare Company’s production of The 39 Steps is a hilarious send-up of Alfred Hitchcock movies. Adapted by Patrick Barlow in 2005 and based on John Buchan’s 1915 adventure novel and Hitchcock’s 1935 movie, it features four actors taking on multiple roles, with two of them doing the bulk of the switching. Directed by Sally Boyett, it combines great acting and movement with clever lighting, costume changes, and sound effects for a fun evening.
Brock D. Vickers plays Richard, a bored Englishman suddenly caught up in pre-World War II espionage and intrigue, with great earnestness. Meeting the mysterious Annabella (Sarah Stewart Chapin) at the theater, he brings her home, where he finds himself wanted for murder and trying to thwart an attempt to steal British military secrets. Vickers handles the fast pace and suspense perfectly, running, diving, and fighting his way through England and Scotland. He also has some great comic moments, working himself up in an inspiring speech while the enemy slowly sneaks up on him.
Sarah Stewart Chapin plays Annabella with great authority and sensuality, inviting herself into Richard’s home, and holding his chest and arms. She melodramatically reveals the plot, getting him “involved” before going out in a wonderful parody of suspense movies. As Pamela, Chapin is Vickers’ perfect foil. Finding herself involved in Richard’s quest, she protests and bickers with him, calling him “selfish” as she digs a finger in his chest. Later, they start to like each other, drawing close for a kiss before being interrupted. As Margaret, a farmer’s wife Richard meets while on the run, she is wistful for the city, eager to hear Richard talk of life in London.
Andy McCain and Justino Brokaw are remarkably talented. They play the remaining characters, sometimes switching roles in the middle of a scene. They have an incredible range, beginning the play as theatrical performers in the middle of a show, Mr. Memory and the announcer (“remember that name”). McCain later plays a Cockney milkman who helps Vickers escape his flat, while Brokaw plays a housekeeper who reacts in typical Hitchcockian fashion to an unexpected discovery. They play the spies with appropriate menace and violence, while McCain gives the Professor a psychotic glee in his villainy. As husband and wife hoteliers, they provoke laughter as Brokaw must translate McCain’s thick Scottish accent. At the end, they have a dramatic role, Brokaw keeping a stiff upper lip while McCain kneels on the stage and weeps.
Scenic Designer Salydon Boyken, with Properties Designer Cheryl Lytle, has created a set that allows for quick scene changes and multiple locations. Staircases are on either side of the stage, with velvet carpet covering the top railing, for theater seats. Velvet curtains cover a side entrance by the left staircase. Two big trunks onstage serve as seats on a train, the back seat of a car, or, covered by a blanket, a hotel room bed. A leather easy chair for Richard’s flat is in the middle of the stage at the play’s start. Later, desks and tables are rolled in for a sheriff’s office, a hotel lobby, and a farmhouse kitchen. Helping to complete scenes is the backdrop, a screen on which Projections Designer Joshua McKerrow throws various images, such as a moving road for a car scene, and even a biplane to recreate the famous North by Northwest scene. Framing the backdrop is a series of lights, like those of an old-fashioned music hall, that flash in between scenes.
Costume Designer Sally Boyett, with Assistant Costume Designer Hannah Gutin-Creech, provides outfits that help distinguish each character. Richard wears a beige suit throughout, with a tan overcoat and at times a black trench coat. Annabella has a frilly black dress and large hat with a feather, while Pamela has a blue and white dress and modest hat, and Margaret looks like a farmer’s wife in a plaid dress and tan sweater. The spies are in beige trench coats, and the Professor wears a purple smoking jacket and red fez.
Lighting Designer Adam Mendelson uses lighting effects to heighten the play’s atmosphere. The play begins with Annabella slowly moving up a staircase in between blackouts, followed by two men. Strobe lighting gives the illusion of movement while running on top of a train.
Sound Designer Sally Boyett and Audio Consultant Folger Ridout throw out mysterious music at appropriate times throughout the show, as well as sounds of cars starting and moving, and planes flying nearby. A musical sting plays whenever anyone says, “The 39 Steps.” While Richard is running, a newscaster’s voice is heard, comically describing the fugitive.
Voice and Dialect Coach Nancy Krebs assures that the various English, Scottish, and German accents sound both accurate and understandable, except in one intentionally comic case. Sally Boyett does a wonderful job as Director. The actors perform complex, intricate movements perfectly, from climbing atop a train to fight scenes and even getting off from under a dead body. The quick character changes are well-done. Everything comes together for a delightful evening of laughter. Be sure to catch it!
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours, including a 15-minute intermission.
The 39 Steps plays through March 15, 2020, at Annapolis Shakespeare Company, 1804 West Street, in Annapolis, MD. For tickets, call the box office at 410-415-3513 or purchase them online.