‘39 Steps’ kills audiences with laughter

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When Ozzy Osbourne sang about going off the rails on a crazy train, he was most certainly referring to the wild theater adaptation of John Buchan’s 1915 novel “39 Steps.” Okay, Ozzy didn’t release this song until 1981, but the idea of a loco locomotive is a fitting metaphor for this laugh-out-loud organized chaos of a production that has made its way to the High Point University black box theater. The play also takes its cues from Alfred Hitchcock’s film adaptation of Buchan’s novel, and references to Hitchcock’s body of work are peppered throughout the fast-paced high-stakes storyline.

Richard Hannay is a British man who gets entangled in an espionage plot that takes him on a journey far from the comforts of his London home. The play follows his interactions with German secret agent Annabella Schmidt and the enemy cronies who are on her trail. Hannay’s mission is to find out what the elusive 39 steps are after having briefly been mentioned by Schmidt, and when police, trains, and wrathful scottish farmers get involved, it’s not as easy as Hannay had hoped. The play is demanding on actors, not just because of the emotional depth required in each scene, but also in the fact that only four actors perform the entire show. Actors switch hats, wigs, accents, and motivations within seconds, often to great comedic effect.

“The most challenging part has definitely been keeping track of all of the characters as well as making them each distinct,” said junior Ceili Lang, who plays Annabella Schmidt, Margaret and Pamela Edwards. “When you’re going between characters they each need to be very different and interesting, while staying true to the character. It’s definitely been a challenge to find each character.”

“I think Annabella is my favorite because she is so dramatic, mysterious, and over the top,” Lang said. “I just have so much fun playing her. Margaret might be the most like me in real life, because she’s kind of a dreamer.”

Played by junior Matthew Hollis, Richard Hannay relies on his wits as an English gentlemen and spends much of the show scrambling to keep his head above water. Hollis plays Hannay as a flailing novice to espionage, and the result is preposterous in the best possible way. Lang plays his love interests throughout the play and does so with the poise and deadpan of an actor who knows comedic beats. But perhaps the most difficult roles are filled by junior Jared Lindsay and sophomore Olivia Scrivner who play Man No. 1 and Man No. 2. Don’t let these titles fool you into thinking they are background figures; rather, these characters become the stars of the show. These two actors have taken on parts that consist of tens of different characters, requiring Man No. 1 and Man No. 2 to flip a switch at the blink of an eye, sometimes even while they are still onstage. Within a span of five minutes, Lindsay transforms from police chief to milkman to Margaret’s Scottish husband with a temper. These ensemble parts cumulatively build to form a comprehensive cast of characters (and occasionally, inanimate objects) with which Hannay interacts, and Lindsay and Scrivner do so with energy and talent by the trainload.

The spit-take-laugh-until-you-fall-off-your-seat quality of this production cannot be overstated. “I still laugh watching it every day after working on it for a month,” Lang said. “It is one of those timeless comedies that is great for any audience.”

The cast finds its way into every crevice of the script in order to exploit those moments that could have been overlooked with ease. Puns made on Alfred Hitchcock’s films, including “Strangers on a Train,” “Rear Window,” “Psycho,” “Vertigo” and “North by Northwest” only add to the many dents the cast makes in the fourth wall. A delightful marriage of physical comedy and turn-of-phrase wit, there is something for everyone in this play.

Director Michael Huie, adjunct professor of performance, knows a thing or two about performances where small casts take on the many moving parts of a performance. His one-man show JACK, has toured the Mid-Atlantic and was performed in the UK. Made even more intimate by the closeness of the Black Box Theater, the high energy show will leave audiences buzzing with the feeling that they’ve seen something completely fresh. “I think this is a different kind of show than what we have done in the past,” Lang said. “It is very stylized and I think students can take in this new form of comedy. The production showcases the versatility of our actors and our department.”

“The ‘39 Steps’ performance is about misunderstandings, adventures, and fighting for your life. But in a very funny way,” Lang said.

Chockful of Monty Python-style humor, HPU’s production of “39 Steps” scores on every level. You would have to be crazy, or at least running in a high speed chase from the police, to miss this production which runs Oct. 6-8 and 10-12 at 7:30 p. m. in the Black Box Theater. Gun to my head? I would see “39 Steps” four more times, and upon seeing this production, you’ll agree.

Campus Chronicle
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