By ALAN SMASON, THEATRE CRITIC, WYES-TV (“Steppin’ Out“)
One of the funniest comedic sketches on Saturday Night Live entailed the reading of the secret Nixon Watergate tapes in which the serious Nixon is seen to be fully cognizant that there are people listening in and he is playing to the audience. “A million? We could get that?” Dan Akroyd cries out, snickering to himself in disbelief that anyone could be so dense as to believe a sitting President could be accused of putting in a political fix.
So, too, a serious film script put into the right hands can become a hilarious romp, if the staging is done in such a way as to elicit laughter. With The 39 Steps, the Rivertown Theaters for the Performing Arts’ artistic production team, Theatre13, re-stages this piece, which it had originally presented in 2010 at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts.
Two of its earlier stars reappear in this latest endeavor. Jessie Terrebonne, who plays nearly all of the female roles in the play (including the murder victim), returns with this production as does Gary Rucker in the role of Clown 1, the first of two male parts who do the majority of the several dozen characters called for in the script. Rucker, who had played the role of Clown 2 in the earlier production, is joined on stage by Mason Wood this time out.
The tandem team of Rucker and Wood is the hilarious glue that holds this piece together. The fact that it is directed by comedic genius and perennial award-winning actor, writer and director Ricky Graham can only add to the very high production standards for this unusual small work for the Rivertown producers, whose main stage is typically filled with dozens of performers.
Marc Fouchi plays the role of Richard Hannay, the innocent man accused of murder and of being a spy for an unnamed power that is at odds with England. When the original novel was written by John Buchan in 1915, the unnamed country was one of the Axis powers. When the story was shot by Alfred Hitchcock as a feature film in 1935, the unnamed nation was, no doubt, meant to be Nazi Germany. By merely alluding to it, the script keeps the audience’s attention focused on the plight of Hannay and his attempt to vindicate himself while on the run from the authorities and one step ahead of the real spies.
Fouchi plays the British fall guy to perfection. In the Hitchcock film, the role was played by Academy Award winning actor Robert Donat. A bit of a snob, who prefers his own company to that of others, Hannay clamors for an adventurous life at the beginning of the play. He achieves that all too soon after becoming enamored of Anabella Schmidt (Terrebonne), whom we later learn is targeted for death, and for whose murder Hannay becomes the scapegoat.
The set by Eric Porter is simple and inspired by James Jennings and the scenic artist Shelbie Mac continues to impress with truly beautiful work. Costumes by Kate Jensen give a real feel for that romantic period between the two world wars, when the world seemed more black and white and less gray than today. Maria Aitken, who is credited with the original staging, turned the original film script into a comedic jaunt with references to other Hitchcock films sprinkled throughout as an homage to the master filmmaker. Sometimes they fly by at a more rapid speed than those “Birds” of Hitchcock lore.
The 39 Steps is flat out a fun-filled film fanatic’s frolic. It does help to have seen the original film with its emotional gravitas in order to appreciate the scenes that are hysterical comic caricatures in the play. When Hannay is suspended from a railway bridge in the original Hitchcock film, we see him dangling from the railway crossing suspended above a river before he drops into the deep. On stage, though, it is two standing ladders that form the outline of the bridge as the police close in on him. In a crucial scene just a bit earlier, Hannay is chased by police across a moving train and they straddle the box cars. In the play, large boxes become the train’s cars and the actors jump hazardly a few feet from the stage to the next box. Later, when a door is opened in a home on a windy moor, the coats of the men flap in the wind as their arms supply the illusion of a howling and fierce wind.
The cast of four players plays a total of at least 100 different characters with some of the characters actually playing two or more characters in a single scene, which makes for even more hilarity as the audience keeps up with the script.
The 39 Steps continues at the Rivertown Theaters for the Performing Arts, 325 Minor Street in Kenner, LA, now through March 26. Tickets are available at 504-461-9475 or by clicking here.