Gregory G. H. Rihn (milwaukeesfs) wrote,
Gregory G. H. Rihn

Milwaukee Rep: The 39 Steps

If you took Alfred Hitchcock's screen adaptation of John Buchan's spy novel The Thirty-Nine Steps, and put it on stage as done by Monty Python, with a substantial dollop of Mel Brooks, and a dash of The Pink Panther, you might have an idea what the Milwaukee Rep's production of "The 39 Steps" is like.

The play was adapted for the stage by Patrick Barlow, who has made a career out of condensing huge movies. His other works include "The Charge of the Light Brigade," "Zulu!", "Wagner's Ring Cycle," and "The Greatest Story Ever Told," among others. "The 39 Steps" is written for a cast of four, one playing the protagonist, Richard Hannay, one playing three women's roles, and two utility players who, among them, manage roughly one hundred supporting roles. This kind of production has had a certain vogue in Milwaukee in the last couple of years, beginning with "Around the World in Eighty Days," and continuing with "Scrooge in Rouge," which is bidding fair to become a holiday perennial.

The play follows the general arc of Hitchcock's movie. Richard Hannay (Reese Madigan) plays the man back in England from South Africa, who's bored with his life until he meets the counter-spy Arabella Schmidt, (played by Helen Anker, with accent heavily influenced by Lili von Shtupp from "Blazing Saddles"). Schmidt's death in his apartment puts Hannay on the run. On the way to resolving the problem of the plot, he encounters police, train conductors, newsboys, spies, innkeepers, farmers, and politicians, all of them played by Gerald Nugent and John Pribyl with considerable flair.

Besides being a lot of fun to watch, the play is a real marathon for the actors, with Madigan as Hannay being on stage almost all the time, and Nugent and Pribyl not only making seemingly continuous costume changes but also shifting most of the scenery and props, often to good comic effect as with the business with the lamppost in the first act. The show is also a tour de force for the stage direction, tech direction, lighting and sound, creating effects such as the classic suspense movie bit of the chase along the top of a moving train. These and others are both clever and unabashedly low-tech,which adds to the charm. Admittedly, a lot of them are visual gags as well, such as assembling an automobile out of four chairs and a lectern, much as children playing "car" would do, but it's fun enough to not bog down the action. Another amusement for the audience is catching the Hitchcock references--we caught allusions to "Rear Window," "North by Northwest," "The Birds," and "Psycho," plus the obligatory Hitchcock cameo. There may have been a "Vertigo" reference as well, but I don't know that movie well enough to be sure.

Very nice work by Madigan as Hannay, Helen Anker as Schmidt; a Scottish farm wife; and the upper-class girl who ends up helping him solve the mystery.  Neugent and Pribyl managed a fair array of British and Scots accents and voices in their many roles, notably Neugent as the notorious Professor, and Pribyl as "Mr. Memory."

Great fun, not to be taken seriously. Come for the sheer audacity of it.
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Tags: buchan, hitchcock, milwaukee rep, theatre
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