Review: “Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps”

July 6, 2011

Anna Botsford, as Annabella, tells Tom Myers, as Hannay, about the plot to steal secret military documents. The ringleader is missing a digit from his little finger. Photo by Alan Trugman for Cotuit Center for the Arts.

“Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps,” at the Cotuit Center for the Arts, gets off to a slow start, as Richard Hannay (played by Tom Myers), resting comfortably in an overstuffed chair, explains to the audience why he, a Canadian, happens to be in London and why he decided, one evening to do something “something mindless and trivial, something utterly pointless” one night–go to the theater.

The action picks up quickly after that, though, more than making up for the laid-back beginning.

Directed by Mary Arnault, “The 39 Steps” is a wonderfully imaginative show, using only four actors to play 140 roles, quickly and comically switching back and forth between roles, often with the addition of a hat or an accent, sometimes, with an elaborate, but deftly executed, on-stage costume change.

The action shifts from London to the highlands of Scotland, from the theater to a train, to a farm house, a mansion, a police station, and more, with just a hint of props and stage furniture.

While you do not have to have seen the 1935 movie on which the play is based (or read the 1915 novel by John Buchan on which the film was based), some minimal knowledge of Alfred Hitchcock’s spy suspense genre does aid in one’s enjoyment of the film, as there are references to other Hitchcock films, including “The Birds,” “Rear Window,” “Psycho,” and “North by Northwest.”

The show does not make fun of the movie, but, rather, presents it in a different format, the humor arising from the quick character changes and use of minimal props (including some comically large sandwiches) to challenge the imagination.

Photo by Alan Trugman, CCftA. From left, Paul Fendler and Troy Davies share a train compartment with Tom Myers.

Several old trunks, for instance become a train, when the passengers jiggle and joggle over the bumpy railbed. When Hannay needs to escape (he is wrongly accused of murder), the trunks are rearranged, and he is suddenly making his way along the tops of the railroad cars, his coattails blowing in the breeze, his pursuers hot on his trail.

Mr. Myers is excellent at Richard Hannay, which is all the more remarkable because he is a 2011 graduate of Barnstable High School. He easily plays a man in his 30s, while demonstrating his agility as he squirms out of difficult places and hangs from the side of a railroad bridge.

Anna Botsford plays three women. Annabella Schmidt is the woman who drags Hannay into the mysterious world of the 39 Steps, telling him that vital British military secrets are about to be spirited out of the country.

Margaret is the farmer’s wife, Hannay meets along the way, and Pamela is a woman who manages to get handcuffed to him for a good part of the play.

Photo by Alan Trugman, CCftA. Anna Botsford and Tom Myers in handcuffs.

She is versatile and expressive in all roles, and especially funny as Annabella, emitting an infectious high-pitched laugh at one point.

Paul Fendler (Clown 1) and Troy Davies (Clown 2) do the yeoman’s work of playing all the other characters in the play. Both are excellent, and play off each other well.

Not only to they play all the other characters, including, for a time, three characters each at the same time, but they rearrange the set when necessary, and do a little song-and-dance, when called for.

The show makes use of the arts center’s upper level for special effects, and sound effects and musical references add to the fun.

Set design is by Andrew Arnault, costume design by Christy Morris, lighting design by Greg Hamm, and sound design by Daniel Fontneau.

“The 39 Steps” continues through July 17 at the Cotuit Center for the Arts. Performances are Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings at 8 PM, and Sunday afternoon at 4. Tickets are $20, $18 for seniors, $15 for members, and $10 for students.

For more information, or to purchase tickets, call 508-428-0669 or visit http://www.ArtsOnTheCape.com.

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