by Dr. Tiffany Raymond, PhD
South Park Theatre takes on The 39 Steps, Patrick Barlow’s 2005 parodic adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film by the same name, which was based on a 1915 novel by John Buchan. The Hitchcock connection signals the production may be one of suspense, and that yields to truth. The 39 Steps proves classic Hitchcockian complete with plot twists as Richard Hannay (John Herrmann) is an innocent man on the run who’s not sure who to trust. When a stranger (Misty Wilds Challingsworth), who claims to be a spy, is murdered his apartment, events are set in motion. He’s unjustly accused of the crime and wanted for murder. Richard runs from the law to carry out her instructions, hoping to clear his name.
In his portrayal of Hannay, Herrmann perfectly embodies a sort of Inspector Clouseau haplessness, less the director of his own fate than a mostly lucky bystander. Herrmann is the only one of the four actors to play a single role, and director Lora Oxenreiter’s wise casting creates a strong quartet. Challingsworth very capably takes on the primary female roles, from the Russian-accented seductress spy to the stranger on the train.
Noah Kendall and Gavin Calgaro are both billed as Clowns. While often comic relief, that naming doesn’t do justice to the immense number of roles they take on. Both make it look effortless, despite the fact mere seconds sometimes elapse between roles with the presence of a hat or a quick pivot in direction signaling a character change. Wisely, Oxenreiter doesn’t let them rush through their roles, even those that are more physical comedy driven. Kendall and Calgaro’s many roles are made more impactful and memorable by the differentiation of each character through changes in costume, tone and/or physicality. The Clowns play women as well as men, reminding us of the artifice and fluidity of gender. Costume designer Annabel Lorence creates easy differentiators that complement the multitude of characters. With the flip of a wig, Challingsworth’s raven-tressed spy becomes a blonde train passenger.
Oxenreiter plays both director and set designer. Her strength is clearly as a director. While the small stage must accommodate a wide variety of settings, the mostly bare stage leaves little to center or capture one’s eye. It’s also a missed opportunity for lighting designer Eve Bandi to overlay some projections that could heighten the suspense and differentiate scene changes. Sound designer Bryce Jensen elicits laughter and lets us know early on that this version of Hitchcock bends to the comedic by inserting the Jeopardy theme music.
The geologic layers of adaptation that this production represents remind us of the malleability of the arts over time. A novel that’s now over a hundred years old turned Hitchcock film turned 21st century play. Hitchcock’s 1935 film came out after the creation and enforcement of Hollywood’s Hays Code that created censorship guidelines for the cinematic arts. Not only are the arts malleable, but the themes of trust and not knowing who to trust are just as relevant in 2022 with the easy spread of misinformation. The media’s broadcasted assumption of Hannay’s guilt and his efforts to clear his good name are just as timely and resonant today, if not more so.
The 39 Steps runs through October 8th at South Park Theatre. For more information and to purchase tickets, please visit https://sites.google.com/…/sout…/south-park-theatre/home