Clowns steal the show in UpStage Artists’ ‘The 39 Steps’

The play is two hours of silly, slapstick humor disguised as a murder mystery and international spy thriller.

If you are bored and need some excitement, Richard Hannay has your cure. Head out to one of the remaining UpStage Artists presentations of The 39 Steps. The play is two hours of silly, slapstick humor disguised as a murder mystery and international spy thriller.

Joey Rolandelli, Nancy Somers, Neil Swanson-Chrisman, and Colleen Isaiah are nearly flawless in 33 scenes, numerous set and costume changes — including some in front of the audience — 78 sound cues and multiple light changes — including in one scene strobe lighting.

Neil Swanson-Chrisman (Clown), Colleen Isaiah (Clown), Joey Rollandelli (Richard Hanney), Nancy Somers (Pamela/Annabella/Margaret), Om Vardhan (Stage Hand), and Jill Robinson (Stage Hand) in ‘The 39 Steps.’ Photo by Rick Bergmann.

“The biggest challenge in directing The 39 Steps is how to keep the comedy light, yet so broad, while not losing the mystery at the center of the story to the comedy,” Director Rick Bergmann said in his director’s note. “There is an adage that if a director casts the right people, his job is done for him. I am very blessed to have cast the right people.”

The script was adapted by Patrick Barlow from the 1915 novel by John Buchan and the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock film. One doesn’t need to have seen the movie to appreciate the accomplishment of this show. Some moments are laugh-out-loud funny.

One of the things that bore Hannay (Rolandelli) is the newspaper stories of “elections and wars and rumors of wars.” He wants to escape, so Hannay goes to the Palladium. A Mati Hari–type blonde bombshell (Somers) invites herself to his table during Mr. Memory’s (Isaiah) act.

Within a question or two, Annabella Schmidt (Somers) fires a pistol to scramble the room and asks Hannay to take her home with him. Somers plays three beautiful women who either use Hannay or fall for him. The play moved so fast that I couldn’t keep up with his love problems. He is also attempting to avoid arrest and save the world.

Rolandelli’s character is introduced in an undersized vest and tweed jacket that begs “go ahead and laugh.” As radio bulletins mention his “handsome” and later “rugged” mustache, he often gleams. He understands not all the bobbies after him — or them in the second act as he is helplessly paired with Margaret — are from Scotland Yard.

The “clowns” steal the show. Isaiah and Swanson-Chrisman are paired together in several roles and even share the role of Professor Jordan.

Isaiah is a beautiful ball of energy bringing welcome excitement to community theater.

Joey Rolandelli, Colleen Isaiah, Neil Swanson-Chrisman, and Nancy Somers in ‘The 39 Steps.’ Photo by Rick Bergmann.

As the evil professor, she shoots Hannay in the chest after moving from a wheelchair-bound Scot professor to a German-sounding disciple of a master race after a vain attempt to lure Hannay to the other side.

A Scot sheriff, from southern Scotland, holds Hannay for Scotland Yard. However, when the copper (Swanson-Chrisman) tries to handcuff Hannay, a scuffle ensues while the sheriff is on the phone with her bestest buddy in the county — the evil professor — and Hannay escapes. The hero not only escapes, but he takes the window with him. Try following that.

Later, Jordan (now Swanson-Chrisman) shoots Mr. Memory before he can answer a question about The 39 Steps. The MC who introduced Mr. Memory (Swanson-Chrisman) carried his little buddy off stage, as he did when the shot rang out at the first performance.

Isaiah and Swanson-Chrisman also play elderly Scottish innkeepers who give Hannay and a plus-one a room thinking they are husband and wife. They are handcuffed together and on the run from the police and “the police.” When the innkeeper’s wife leads the couple to the room or brings room service, she shuffles in with a smile and sighs. She shuffles out stopping for another smile and sigh before exiting.

Isaiah and Swanson-Chrisman shift identities faster than a field of GOP presidential candidates and manage to embody several characters within a seconds-long fraction of a scene, exchanging headgear with stagehands. They walk a tightrope between play and zeal.

Bergmann and Stage Manager Joanne Breen morph chairs, a coat hanger, and curtains into the interior of a speeding train, or a cluster of folding chairs and a small podium into a getaway car. By the play’s end, you’ll have nearly forgotten the show’s set and spartan lighting by Harsha Vardhan. Bergmann handles the sound and includes some miscues for laughs.

Running Time: Approximately two hours with a 15-minute intermission.

The 39 Steps plays September 22 and 23 at 7:30 p.m., and September 17 and 24 at 2 p.m. presented by UpStage Artists performing at Emmanuel United Methodist Church, 11416 Cedar Lane, Beltsville, MD. Tickets ($10) are available online.

The playbill for The 39 Steps is online here.

The 39 Steps 

Richard Hanney: Joey Rolandelli; Anabella/Pamela/Margaret: Nancy Somers; Clown 1: Neil Swanson-Chrisman; Clown 2: Colleen Isaiah

Director: Rick Bergmann
Assistant Director: Melvin Smith
Stage Manager: Joanne Breen
Stagehand: Jill Robinson
Stangehand: Om Vardhan
Set Design: Rick Bergmann and Joanne Breen
Sound and Light Design: Rick Bergmann
Sound Techician: Rick Bergmann
Light Techician: Harsha Vardhan
Fight Choreography: John Cusumano


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