Oregon Cabaret Theatre’s The 39 Steps: A Non-stop, Antic, Hilarious, Comedic Romp
by Lee Greene
The Oregon Cabaret Theatre (OCT) opened an 11 week run of the play, The 39 Steps, on Friday, September 11. Most sentient people, of a certain age, associate the title, The 39 Steps, with a great 1935 Alfred Hitchcock mystery thriller film based on the 1915 adventure novel by John Buchan. [https://youtu.be/k4v7vUIm4Ws] The film is about a man, Richard Hannay, in London who tries to help a mysterious woman who claims to be a counter-espionage agent trying to prevent an organization of spies called the 39 Steps from stealing top secret information from the British Air Ministry. When the agent is killed, Hannay stands accused of the murder, and has to go on the run. To attempt to clear his name and stop the spy ring, he follows a map clutched by the dead woman, to Scotland, to try to unravel her cryptic reference to “the 39 steps.” In typical Hitchcockian fashion, the plot moves from one thrilling mystery scene to another, with a myriad of twists and turns, and a string of characters, who frequently turn out not to be what they seem on first encounter, including, of course, an accidental and resistant romantic interest. Hannay seems to attract romantic interests like flies to a flame. Hitchcock’s film has been ranked as the fourth best British film of the 20th century. [Wikipedia, The 39 Steps (1935 film), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_39_Steps_%281935_film%29] So much for the Hitchcock film.
The play, The 39 Steps, is an over-the-top spoof of the Hitchcock film, originally written by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon, which had its premiere in 1995 in North Yorkshire, England. [Wikipedia, The 39 Steps (play), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_39_Steps_%28play%29] The script was rewritten in 2005 by Patrick Barlow and the re-adaptation, which is essentially the show currently running at OCT, premiered at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in June 2005. [Id.] The Hitchcock film employs a cast of 35 on-screen actors. The play employs FOUR actors to depict at least 25 roles, one to play Hannay, and the other three portraying multiple characters, filling dozens of other parts. One actress plays three women (all of whom Hannay seems to end up in romantic entanglements with) and the two other actors play every other character in the show: “heroes, villains, men, women, children and even the occasional inanimate object” [Id.], sometimes playing more than one role at a time, unlikely as that may sound. The audience is treated to 2 hours of lightning fast, effective, eye-popping costume and set changes. Hitchcock’s serious spy story is transformed into broad comedy, with laugh lines, puns, physical comedy, multiple amusing allusions to other Hitchcock films, and a laugh a minute.
Now, about the Oregon Cabaret Theatre production: it’s a winner – a non-stop, antic, hilarious, comedic romp. In the words of the woman, who was seated next to me at Friday evening’s performance, who knows a thing or two about theater [to be clear and avoid being taken too literally, THAT’S an understatement], the OCT production of The 39 Steps is “a tour de force of wonderful acting, and great stagecraft.” I couldn’t have said that better myself, which is why I’ve quoted it.
Let’s get the stagecraft out of the way first. It was terrific. The set was not only wonderful, but highly creative, designed in a way that allowed the stage to be instantly and effectively transformed from one scene to the next. The props were similarly clever, amusing and adaptive: a door on wheels, always right in place where one was needed; a hotel front check-in desk and room key holder that becomes the entangled couple’s bed; hand-held windows to step through to make an escape, large trunks that double as train compartment seating, a lectern that becomes an amusing automobile, etc. Lighting was very effectively employed, from the use of different colors to create different moods, to spotlights tracking the “fugitive”, and even a string of incandescent bulbs around the circumference of the proscenium to create a believable “London Palladium”. The scenes were accompanied by terrific sound effects – always just right for the scene at hand – trains, planes, gunfire, phones, etc. And then there were the projections – not only used to advance the plot, but a key element in inserting allusions to other Hitchcock movies: a plane ala North by Northwest, the shower scene from Psycho, etc. all logically incorporated as part of Hannay’s adventure.
But the best thing about OCT’s production of The 39 Steps was the outstanding cast. John Stadelman, who fills the Hannay role, has been described by a local casting director as the finest local actor to grace the stages in the Rogue Valley, which he’s seemingly done for decades and on every local stage you can think of, including those of Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Rogue Music Theatre, and other local theaters in addition to OCT. He was a delight, employing just the right deft touch, never over acting, and entirely believable, in the Hannay role, a tough sell considering all of the chaos, slapstick and shtick going on around him – he spends a lot of stage time playing the straight man, but does it so well that all the humor works perfectly.
Katie Worley played the three women Hannay becomes entangled with – the platinum blonde espionage agent and seductress Annabella Smith; the attractive, demure, middle class brunette femme, Pamela, who accidentally becomes entangled in Hannay’s plight; and the simple, rural, crofter’s wife, long auburn-haired Margaret, who aides his escape and is so obvious in her attraction to him that her husband accuses her of unfaithful flirtation. Worley is wonderful in all three roles and barely recognizable as the same actress from one role to another.
That brings us to the “two clowns”, who play all the other numerous roles, generate most of the laughter and for all practical purposes, steal the show: Stephen Kline and Justin Waggle. I could spend all day and pages of descriptions trying to cover all the roles these two played and all the funny bits they contributed to the show. To mention just a few: Kline was unforgettably entertaining as the amusing “Mr. Memory”, hysterical as a senior Scottish politician in kilt, with bottle glasses and tongue out and wagging, while delivering a speech; a hoot in drag as a large chested and aggressive Mrs. Jordan; and quite adoreable as a Scottish innkeeper. Waggle was a revelation playing two roles simultaneously, with a coat draped over one shoulder, turning first one side then the other downstage as he had a conversation with himself, and alternately slipped into the two very different roles; he also was very amusing in drag as the innkeeper’s wife. But, there is just no substitute really for seeing these “clowns” in their myriad roles in this funny confection yourself. If you need a good laugh – the place to get it (almost two solid hours worth!) is by watching these two perform in Oregon Cabaret Theatre’s The 39 Steps.
Performances of The 39 Steps continue through November 8 at the Oregon Cabaret Theatre, Thursdays through Mondays (except no shows Oct. 19, 26 and Nov. 2) , with matinees at 1 pm on Sundays, and evening performances at 8 pm on other days, at 241 Hargadine Street, Ashland, OR 97520. Tickets can be ordered by visiting the box office, calling the box office at 541-488-2902, or online at http://bit.ly/1dA4iJ0.
It’s worth noting that Oregon Cabaret Theatre is a dinner theater. You CAN, but do not have to, enjoy dinner as part of your theater experience. Dinner is available before evening performances and requires that you arrive and be seated earlier (between 6:30 pm and 7 pm) than if simply attending the 8 pm performance. You must request dinner reservations in advance, from the box office, at the phone number above. The menu, which includes appetizers, entrees and desserts, is available to view online at http://bit.ly/1GQCh7e. There’s also a fairly good wine menu.