Sure, it’s a farce, but with so much latitude given to actors and directors with the genre, much more could have been done. Maybe it’s the script. I’m not sure. Or maybe I just didn’t like the material, although, I do enjoy a cleverly performed farce.
The Duluth Playhouse opened Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps with theatre veterans Jason Page, Zachary Stofer, Christa Schulz, and Jack Starr, all directed by Julie Ahasay. The play is an adaptation of the 1915 novel by John Buchan and the 1935 film by, of course, Alfred Hitchcock. Only with this production, a cast of four is charged with acting out the entirety of the film on stage with multiple character changes, costume changes, and madcap comedy. Long story short: Richard Hannay (Jason Page) the hero of the play encounters a spy, Annabella Schmidt (Christa Schulz) at a London theatre, whereupon, after a shooting occurs, he harbors her in his flat where she admits to having uncovered a plot to steal vital military secrets masterminded by a mysterious man affiliated with an organization called “39 Steps.” Upon finding Annabella stabbed to death, Hannay sets out to escape police capture after he is assumed to be the murderer.
Without a doubt, the lighting and set design is top notch. Jim Eischen knows how to light a show. Jason Page, no stranger to comedy on the Playhouse stage, at times seems to be sleepwalking through the motions. He has much more range than is being put on stage here and a muddled, nasally British accent rounds out the presentation. But, on Friday night’s performance, he made the best of some technical difficulties on stage and his pacing through the madcap vignettes of the show is just about right. There’s a lot of physical comedy with the role and Page isn’t shy to the genre.
Christa Schulz plays multiple roles in the production, with few distinctions between them save costume and wig changes in what, at most times, is a one-note performance. It is difficult to place Schulz as vamp in the show’s opening scenes or perhaps it was an acting or directing choice to play the role as a caricature in the farce. Hitchcock’s ladies are usually more liquid and sultry. With the opportunity to power up and power down the roles, some interesting interactions could have been explored on stage between Page and Schulz. There are several actresses, including at least a couple Playhouse regulars that come to mind, who might have been more suited to the role.
Jack Starr and Zach Stofer are the undisputed heavy hitters in the show. And, for good measure, they both seem to be having genuine fun in the indefatigable performances they turn in. In fact, I would have been quite satisfied watching Stofer perform, if at all possible, every single role in a one-man presentation of the script. His versatility, comedic timing, and willingness to go the extra mile for the laugh and for the ludicrous is a complete delight to see unfold on stage. He first appears as Mr. Memory on stage while Hannay and Schmidt watch from their box seats. The timing and comedic delivery between Stofer and Starr is spot on and swift in the scene with Mr. Memory at the top of the show and during the hilarious and fast-paced hat switching, role switching bit during the scene where Hannay is evading police on the train in the first act.
Not to be missed is Stofer’s side-splitting portrayal of the bushy headed Scottish farmer with the heavy accompanying accent when Hannay boards with him and his wife for the night on his way to solve the mystery of the 39 Steps. Yeah, it’s difficult to understand, at times, what the hell Stofer is saying, but that only adds to the sheer comedic joy. He switches gears again at the conclusion of the first act by donning skirt and wig as the creepy, reserved wife of Professor Jordan. The jitterbug between Starr and Stofer as the Jordans is frosting on the cake of their performances.
The rest of the show is a slap-stick race to Hannay’s vindication. Director Julie Ahasay has worked extensively with at least three of the four actors cast in this show–whether they were hand-picked or not is anybody’s guess, but it would seem that she’d be quite familiar with how much to push and pull them to get performances worth the price of admission. Not that any review would have a dent of effect on the selling of tickets to the Playhouse’s streak of sold out shows, but one can’t help but wonder if the sure thing isn’t contributing to a sense of complacency in the performances of some actors or directors associated with the venue in general and with this production in particular. Maybe some fresh blood in the directing pool and more actors like Starr and Stofer (who literally save the show acting-wise) might amp it up to justify ticket prices in the “straight play” department.
And, as a sidenote, couldn’t have picked a more unflappable Alfred Hitchcock to introduce the show. Well-played, Ric Stevens.
ALFRED HITCHCOCK’S THE 39 STEPS. Written by Patrick Barlow. Directed by Julie Ahasay for the Duluth Playhouse, 506 West Michigan Street, Duluth. With Jason Page, Christa Schulz, Zachary Stofer, and Jack Starr. The show runs through next weekend. Thursday-Saturday curtain time is 7:30 p.m. with Sunday matinee at 2 p.m. Review by Dennis Kempton.