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The 39 Steps — Hedgerow Theatre

2625025_orig“The 39 Steps” gets broader every time I see it.

My first view, at London’s Criterion Theatre in 2006, was an eye opener. It took me a scene of two to adjust to Maria Aitken’s staging of Patrick Barlow’s play I knew as a 1935 Alfred Hitchcock movie, Barlow and Hitchcock taking their stories from a novel by John Buchan.

Did you follow all of that?

Never mind. The point is I was expecting an atmospheric spy mystery with some sequences of humor and romance, and I walked into a farce that preserved some intrigue but showed the versatility and creativity of theater by combining music hall comedy with modern sound effects and lighting to tell a serious story in a way that went from tense to madcap and from entertaining to downright silly. Aitken and company put laughs first, and Barlow’s script smacked of the sarcasm and wordplay that is a hallmark of British writing.

Music hall is important to “The 39 Steps.” Its lead character, Richard Hannay, elects to relieve the boredom and sense of strangeness he feels after returning to his native London after years living in Canada by going to a vaudeville show at the famous Palladium. It is there Hannay unwittingly becomes involved in an espionage drama that can change the course of any war England may end up fighting against Germany — Remember, it’s 1935, and Britain’s prime minister and foreign office are dismissing the warnings of Winston Churchill and dancing with Adolf Hitler in the desire to negotiate peace that will preclude war. — and there that Hannay makes decisions that can end up costing him his life or freedom.

Damon Bonetti recognizes the strong music hall ties in “The 39 Steps” and elects to begin his production of Barlow’s show for Hedgerow Theatre by having his cast of four take a vaudeville-style bow, as if they were music hall stars the audience came to see and would delight in greeting before they launched into their performance. The actors, billed by Barlow as clowns, and playing a myriad of parts ranging from desperate spies and suspicious police officers to randy train companions and dotty Highland innkeepers, get the same attention as the players who will portray Hannay and three women important to his story.

Bonetti’s little preamble provides the clue to the style and spirit in which “The 39 Steps” is being presented. It suggests that everything we are about to see is an extended sketch, a music hall act devised and offered for our amusement and delectation.

Following this set-up, he begins slowly by letting Richard Hannay introduce himself to the audience and tell his story of returning home to no life at all. Matt Tallman, playing the part, makes an immediate impression as a respectable English gentleman in the era of George VI, all tweeds, blondish good looks, and the pencil-thin mustache we will hear about over and over again in Hannay descriptions throughout the play.

Hannay, in the great British tradition of pulling oneself up by the bootstrap and carrying on with a stiff upper lip determines he needs a night out on the town to forget his malaise and depression. He figures it would be best to do something mindless, so he settles on going to the theater. (You see what I mean by Barlow following Britain’s tradition of verbal wit.)

Once at the music hall, the London Palladium, Hannay takes his seat in a box, and Bonetti ratchets the comic part of his production to a higher level by having Joel Guerrero burst through a bright red curtain and have a go at being a music hall emcee with all the exaggerated bombast and Cockney charm associated with that job.

Guerrero has the pandering patter and condescendingly cordial style of the emcee down pat. He is both oily and inviting in way that is very authentic and true to the music hall tradition.

Even better is the act the emcee introduces, Andrew Parcell, as the featured vaudeville attraction, Mr. Memory, a man who learns 50 new facts a day and uses his encyclopedic knowledge to dazzle the folks in the Palladium stalls.

Parcell is superb. Wearing formal clothes, sporting a handlebar mustache, and standing in the straightest and most rigid of postures, he looks almost like a ventriloquist’s dummy, not quite real or totally human.

The make-up and mustache make him look waxy, so his Mr. Memory comes off as otherworldly while also indicating he, like the emcee, is an ordinary Cockney lad on the stage to make a living. Parcell, though, gives Memory an awkwardness, a stiffness that makes it seem he is not comfortable as a performer in spite of the success of his act. He goes through the physical paces of his act as if he had learned them the same way he learns his information, by grueling, unnatural study. At each question, Parcell’s Memory becomes even more erect than usual and feigns a state of deep thought, When he has the correct answer at his command, he does a knees-up march step with both legs and delivers his response. Once he is assured his answer is right, he bows in both directions and resumes his rigid stance while waiting for the next query.

Hannay gets in the spirit of the show by asking Mr. Memory a question, which Memory gets right. The bit shows Memory is not only fed answers but knows as much as he claims.

Hannay and the Hedgerow are being thoroughly entertained. The music hall scenes were broader than in other productions, but they had a veneer of reality, were jolly good fun, and established the comic skill of Parcell and Guerrero while maintaining the urbane suavity of Hannay.

Then trouble comes. For Hannay, not the audience.

A gunshot rings out during Mr. Memory’s act. It is heard throughout the Palladium and causes mild pandemonium. Bonetti lets both the audience and Hannay see who fired the shot.

A mysterious woman, with an accent that combines Natasha from the “Bullwinkle” cartoons with Sonja Henie and Marlene Dietrich, pleads with Hannay to protect her by taking her home to his Marylebone bed-sitter.

He agrees, and the woman, Annabella Schmidt, confides she is an agent who is on the trail of spies who are in Scotland and about to leave British soil with secrets involving British air defense that will render England vulnerable in an aerial war with Germany.

The plot should and does thicken. And here’s where I have my first cavil with Bonetti’s choices.

Rebecca Cureton, whose virtuoso talents are as keen as Parcell’s and Guerrero’s, is directed to portray Annabella broadly, almost bellowing her lines in her undefinable foreign patois. Cureton plays her part with verve and ekes every laugh out of what her character has to play while also providing exposition needed to make the gist of “The 39 Steps” comprehensible.

While I admired Cureton’s comic tone, and the command she took of the stage and Hannay’s will, I’d have preferred a more subtle approach.

That’s why I call my reaction a cavil. Neither Cureton nor Bonetti do anything wrong or out of keeping with Barlow’s script of a production of “The 39 Steps.” The largeness with which Cureton endows Annabella is entertaining and in the range of farces such as Barlow’s show. To my taste, it just takes the comedy too far too fast and too baldly.

Farce is by definition broad, but I like to sneak up on me.

Annabella registers as mysterious upon her entrance, and I think “The 39 Steps” benefits as a total piece if she remains mysterious. The accent Cureton affects is a gem and comic enough. Her dealing with Hannay should be quieter, more serious, and more mature. “The 39 Steps” is, after all, a thriller in which lives are at stake and a country’s security, as well as an individual’s freedom, are in constant jeopardy.

I believe some semblance of that danger, some idea of the importance of Hannay’s actions, and some tone of intrigue should be sustained throughout a production of “The 39 Steps” no matter how farcical it gets and no matter how many stops Parcell, Guerrero, and Bonetti pull out to make the Hedgerow show a rollicking riot.

By making Annabella so obviously comic, sort of like “Young Frankenstein’s” Fräulein Blücher as a sexy spy, Bonetti takes away the suspense of “The 39 Steps.” He declares his intention to go for camp and comedy at the expense of any apprehension he may have for Hannay or his ability to both clear his name and spare England calamity.

Jokes are primary to “The 39 Steps.” Farce is farce, the exchange between Hannay and Annabella is laced with amusing repartee and comic betrayals of mistrust, but how one builds, or leads to, the farce is also important in setting an overall tone for a protection.

Comedy is built into the scene with Hannay and Annabella because of a gag, appropriate, involving a window shade that won’t stay down, and an all-out bit in which Guerrero and Parcell, playing agents tailing Annabella, appear and disappear quickly from the wings when Hannay, at Annabella’s direction, looks for them outside his window.

The clowns’ antics and the edgy verbal byplay between Hannay and Annabella are enough to maintain the farcical nature of “The 39 Steps.” I think the overall scene would have been richer if Tallman and Cureton played it straight. Farce often plays far funnier if a core of seriousness, reality, or actual consequence is established amid the mayhem.

Cavil or not, Rebecca Cureton plays her scenes with aplomb. She makes Annabella a formidable figure who conveys the urgency of her mission even if Bonetti’s choices undercut the seriousness of it.

Once unbridled comedy is out of the barn, there’s no stopping it.

From the scene with Annabella in Hannay’s apartment onward Bonetti takes “The 39 Steps” at a generally breakneck farcical pace, leaving justifiable, and probably needed, breathing room in a sequence that involves Hannay being mistaken for a Parliamentary candidate at a Scottish political rally.

Intrigue and suspense go out the window, out of many windows actually, as Hannay carries on a mission to exonerate himself from a crime of which he’s been accused while fulfilling Annabella’s quest to keep Germany from receiving British defense plans.

The trick, I find, is to hold the thought in your mind that Hannay is playing a game with high stakes, and to remember it even when “The 39 Steps” embarks on a comic roller coaster ride on which Hannay must be cleverer than those around him and a Houdiniesque escape artist.

Bonetti’s production masterfully sets up the fracas to come. Once Hannay eludes the police the first time, the practice becomes routine, and Tallman is always one-upping the Laurel and Hardylike team of Guerrero and Parcell on the occasions when they have Hannay captured.

Meanwhile all kinds of gambits are used, from references to Hitchcock movies, “The Birds, “Psycho,” “Rear Window” and “Dial M for Murder” being particularly prominent, to puns and double entendres to keep matters merry and in fast flight.

Laughs abound once “The 39 Steps” takes off with manic speed, and Bonetti takes every opportunity to put some sight gag, physical joke, character tic, or verbal kerfuffle in motion.

He has his cast bounce, rock, and shake in various vehicles. He turns a lectern into a steering wheel to create a believable car chase and getaway. With the help of Janus Stefanowicz, he uses a panoply of costumes to comic effect. Seeing the ample Joel Guerrero stuffed into Scottish plaids and a red sweater is visual comedy on its own. Having Guerrero reveal and hide his deer stalker cap when he simultaneously plays a detective and another character is executed in a way that is funny on a few levels. Seeing the disciplined command with which Parcell assays his catalog of characters is a clinic in comic portrayal.

Bonetti harkens back to music hall with an “after you, Alphonse” routine in a crowded train. He gives Guerrero rein to unleash a slew of accents, his array of Scottish brogues being particularly tickling. He takes advantage of the deadpan Parcell does so well, in addition to the poise Parcell gives a cultured lady who keeps Hannay company while he waits for her husband to arrive for a conference.

“Broad” only mildly describes the tone of the comedy and the zeal with which it’s acted at Hedgerow. Remarkably, though any sense of intrigue, suspense, or worry is dispensed with, Bonetti and his cast keep you aware of Buchan and Barlow’s basic plot. You may not feel urgency, but you will find it interesting to keep up with clues, learn the details of the Germans’ plans, and have your curiosity satisfied about the resolution of the mystery that should drive “The 39 Steps.”

That’s because some care was taken about clarity and giving characters a chance to reveal exposition before letting them exhibit their comic gifts and because Tallman, as Hannay, and Cureton, as the main character she portrays, Pamela, play crucial late scenes in a fairly straightforward fashion. Neither loses his or her “leading man/lady” polish even when Guerrero and Parcell are raising a commotion around them.

While I would like a bit more of the tension of an espionage yarn, even in Barlow’s take on “The 39 Steps,” I was thoroughly entertained and always in admiration by the playing of the Hedgerow cast and many of Bonetti’s ideas, including using Bernard Herrmann’s score for “North by Northwest” so cannily throughout his production and the interpolation of some rhythmic riffs in appropriate places, e.g. the music that accompanies Hannay’s train ride to Edinburgh.

I also enjoyed watching the various acting styles and character devices employed by the Hedgerow cast.

In appearance and manner, Matt Tallman is an excellent Richard Hannay.

Damon Bonetti was the last actor I saw as Hannay. He was also excellent, but in directing someone else in the part, he took into account more than the choices he made as an actor. Bonetti is thin, wiry, and has a jaunty handsomeness, the smooth and well-etched features of one whose looks get attention. Tallman is just as flexible, but his body is solid and conveys the image of a fit but filled-out average guy.

Tallman looks like someone you would cast as a typical Englishman who did some work abroad for the Foreign Office and has returned to commune with people of the same type at his club and at social events. There is an immediately authenticity in coloring, hair type, and bearing.

Tallman is also handsome but in more standing, less matinee idolish way. His features are regular. He would be harder to describe than Bonetti and harder to identify in a crowd. Tallman’s Hannay would blend in beautifully with everyday London and would not be the kind who would arouse suspicion to look like someone the police was after.

Bonetti recognized the differences in his and Tallman’s looks and physical traits and directed Tallman in a way that was right for that actor. He allowed a different approach and attitude toward the Hannay role.

Tallman struck the right note of irony in many of Hannay’s scenes. He had the physical dexterity to get through narrow windows and do his share of takes. He also gave a sense of Hannay being totally self-possessed and in command. Even in dangerous situations, Tallman exuded a kind of cool that said, “I can handle this.”

With dialogue, Tallman seems to enjoy any wordplays Barlow throws in Hannay’s direction and is equally adept at sparring with Annabella in what may be a prelude to romance, bickering with Pamela who wants most to bring Hannay to justice, and confronting the head of the German espionage ring.

Tallman has the wit to facially express, “OK, I’ll play your silly game” when the time is right for such a reaction. He can also be stern, purposeful, and resourceful. You see him as a Richard Hannay who could accomplish what Annabella started out to do, and that is important because it keeps the mystery sections relevant even after Bonetti’s “39 Steps” has surrendered first and foremost to farce.

Rebecca Cureton does a wonderful job with all three of her roles.

I obviously have reservations about the way Annabella was portrayed, but given the choices Cureton made or direction that was given her, she was marvelous and entertaining in the part.

Cureton has a natural way of approaching characters. That may be why I was so surprised when Annabella became so big and dominating. She listens and reacts in addition to speaking lines in a way that get everything out of them. She can make one bit of dialogue funny and meaningful at once.

She was deftly comic as the wife of a religious farmer, one who notices the masculine charms of Hannay. She was totally in control as Pamela, a woman who meets Hannay when he is on a train as a fugitive.

Pamela identifies Hannay as a man the police are seeking, but Hannay is able to elude capture in a rather well and creatively staged scene that shows Bonetti’s ingenuity, the sturdiness and resourcefulness of Susan Wefel and Gray Kelsey’s props, the flexibility of Zoran Kovcic’s sets, and the nuances in Jared Reed’s lighting.

Pamela also brings Hannay to police attention when she recognizes him at the political rally where he gives a rather appealing speech about people helping people. In these scenes and others, Cureton is the picture of the proper and competent Englishwoman who is always well mannered, always honorable, and unflappable in practically any situation.

Cureton aces scenes in which she is handcuffed to Hannay and is flinty and funny in scenes in which the two argue constantly in a way that suggests love will bloom between them.

Cureton has an instinctive way with language. Her farmer’s wife is sweetly comic, especially when Hannay is being uncharacteristically dense. Her Pamela is the depiction of a woman of high breeding who takes her responsibility seriously and doesn’t intend to help someone she regards as a criminal and an enemy of the general populace.

Joel Guerrero and Andrew Parcell are beyond praise. They each have dozens of characters to play, and they made each distinct and each someone it was amusing to have on stage.

Among Guerrero’s best moments are ones in which he gets to relax the pace some as a Scottish country sheriff who coddles Hannay by believing his story about Annabella and the spy ring and as the leader of the Axis espionage group who remains coolly civilized and unnervingly calm as he plies his villainy.

The most memorable supporting character from “The 39 Steps” is the woman innkeeper of a remote Scottish hotel who is, in turn, inquisitive to the point of being nosy and protective to the point of being an ally. Guerrero revels in the part and seems to enjoy it when he has to play the wily Mrs. McCarricle and a police detective at once.

Andrew Parcell stuns as Mr. Memory and makes all of his numerous parts special in some way.

Among the most impressive aspects of Parcell’s Memory is the actor’s recitation of a long passage that includes formulae and scientific and technological terminology that is quite complex and tongue-twisting.

The scene in which he spouts this information is critical, yet you wonder why Barlow went on long with all Parcell has to memorize when the point is already made about what the data signify. No matter. Parcell makes the passage into a tour de force.

Parcell is suspicious and comically ornery as the farmer whose wife flirts with Hannay. He has and provides a good time as a Barry Fitzgerald-like husband of the newsy innkeeper. I also admired the old-world grace and poise with which he acted a German noblewoman.

Janus Stefanowicz helps create the spirit of farce with the costumes for Hedgerow’s “39 Steps.” I especially liked some of the simpler outfits, the light brown suit for Hannay and the sensible black and white dress for Pamela. Stefanowicz’s clothes also make some of Guerrero and Parcell’s characters more of a hoot. The plaids for the innkeeper say everything you need to know about the character.

Zoran Kovcic’s set gave Bonetti ample room to let his cast romp, invent, and entertain. Chairs and foot lockers find a lot of uses in Bonetti’s staging.

Dark and light, reflections, and the illusion of moving trains are all crucial to “The 39 Steps.” Jared Reed did a fine job at making sure the lighting added to the show’s fun.

With all the quick changes, entrances and exits, and moving of props and furniture, the stage management crew is sore-tasked to keep all going at a lickety split pace. Kudos to Colleen Marker and Brock Vickers for their diligent and meticulous work.

“The 39 Steps” runs through Sunday, August 17 at Hedgerow Theatre, 64 Rose Valley Road, in Rose Valley, Pa. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. Wednesday, July 23 and August 13 and Sundays. Tickets range from $34 to $25 with discounts for seniors and students. They can be obtained by calling 610-565-4211 or by going online to http://www.hedgerowtheatre.org.

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