“The 39 Steps”: Inventively Reworked Hitchcock Spy Thriller

Herbert Simpson
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John Gregorio (Richard Hannay), Monica West (Pamela/Annabelle/Margaret) in Geva Theatre production of “39 Steps.” All photos: Ken Huth

This goofy entertainment has had hundreds of productions on top professional, semi-professional, amateur and high-school levels since it began eight years ago in England, and then opened on London’s West End, then Boston, Broadway, and all over. That is [was] Patrick Barlow’s rewriting of a much simpler Yorkshire small-scale staging by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon that inventively reworked John Buchan’s 1915 spy novel, The 39 Steps. artes fine arts magazine

I know Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film and saw the 1959 and 1978 remake filmwww.artesmagazine.coms and the slightly pretentious 2011 PBS televised version; but in one way or another all the stage versions reduce those screen casts to four actors playing more than 100 roles. I’m not too sure about Corble and Dimon’s 1995 Yorkshire version, but accounts of all those other staged productions indicate that at least as much as they play around with the spy story, they put more emphasis on joking about Alfred Hitchcock. Some reviewers call the parodies a “homage to Hitchcock” [like “There was an old man from Nantucket…” is a homage to lyric poetry].

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l to r: John Gregorio (Richard), Aaron Munoz, Joel Van Liew (Clown #1, Clown #2)

Now, I never read the novel and never saw any of those stage versions, and I even got back to Rochester to see Geva Theatre Centre’s current production the week after it opened. But, though all the many accounts I’ve read of the staged 39 Steps seem to describe very similar slapstick use of suggestive props, funny gimmicks to imitate a lot of sets and actions, and references to signature Hitchcock films in addition to this one, I still get the distinct impression that Sean Daniels has created a unique version of his own for Geva Theatre. The cast, designers, and production elements are familiar favorites of his, and the tone and appearance of the show, as well as some specific gags it employs, remind me of similar elements in other shows which I’ve seen his direction of in several theaters.

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Joel Van Liew, Monica West

This is not a significant play, and its art lies in Daniels’ inventive, wacky direction; Michael Raiford’s gaudy and mechanically tricky sets; Jennifer Caprio’s hilarious quick-change costumes; Brian J. Lilienthal’s flashy and illusion-creating lighting; and, of course, the sly, accomplished, acrobatic clowning of its cast. Matt Callahan’s sound effects also include parodies of disaster-noises, and some of his sounds referencing Hitchcock’s “The Birds” are literally a hoot.

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Aaron Munoz (front),Joel Van Liew (rear), as Clowns #1, #2.

John Gregorio plays the put-upon hero, who has to dash from country to country, saving damsels in distress, surviving multiple violent attacks, jumping off and on trains, inventing speeches and impersonations, and walking up buildings and diving off bridges while trying not to get his hair mussed. Everyone else plays a collection of old, young, male, female, good, bad, and fantastic folk each. Monica West creates the various – and I do mean various! – female beauties without seeming effort. Joel Van Lieu plays aides and villains, young and old, with equal zest. And Aaron Munoz is clumsy or agile, as required, but always funny, and creates at least one frumpy lady whose walk alone is a comic show.

The show could use trimming; not all the repeated gags wear well. But I can’t imagine a sourpuss who could sit through this 39 Steps and not once break out into giggles or guffaws.

By Herbert M. Simpson, Contributing Writer

The 39 Steps Total Rating: *** (out of 4)

Through November 17, 2013

Author: Patrick Barlow

Adapted from the novel by John Buchan

From the movie by Alfred Hitchcock

Directed by: Sean Daniels

Geva Theatre – Mainstage

75 Woodbury Boulevard

Rochester, New York

Phone: 585-232-4382

Genre: Comedy

Cast: John Gregorio, Aaron Munoz, Joel Van Liew, Monica West

Technical :

Scenic Designer: Michael Raiford

Costume Designer: Jennifer Caprio

Lighting Designer: Brian J. Lilienthal

Sound Designer: Matt Callahan

Dramaturg: Jean Gordon Ryan

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