“The 39 Steps” goes to summer camp — at Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival
Richard Hannay asked for it.
In the first moments of “The 39 Steps,” now settled in for a high-energy summer’s run in repertory at Garrison’s Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, Hannay (pitch-perfect straight man Richard Ercole) bemoans his ho-hum life, a boredom he is determined to remedy by doing something utterly pointless. But what?
“I know!” he declares. “I’ll go to the theater!”
Soon enough, his dull life is on the line.
After he meets a mysterious woman (the excellent Gabra Zackman) — who has a wicked (sorry, “vicked”) accent, no country and a secret she’s dying to share — he is accused of murder, becomes a fugitive and tries to clear his name while foiling a German spy ring.
While certainly not required, to get the full effect of Patrick Barlow’s clever, laugh-out-loud-funny adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film, best to check out the source material, free online, here.
But this “Hitch” has a hitch, presented by a cast of four first-rate actors portraying dozens of characters.
Russell Treyz, a fine addition to the festival’s directorial ranks, fits the show to the challenging confines of the tent at Boscobel, ingeniously adding two hard-working stagehands, Jack Mackie and Marianna Caldwell, to play everything from doors and fog to sheep and an easychair. They set scenes — planes, trains and automobiles — using nothing more than four trunks, two rakes and Robert Lavagno’s well-chosen props.
(The cast of “The 39 Steps,” from left: Marianna Caldwell, Gabra Zackman, Jason O’Connell, Richard Ercole, Wesley Mann and Jack Mackie. Photo by William Marsh.)
Treyz’s cast is the festival’s equivalent of Groucho, Harpo and Chico and Zeppo — clown princes Jason O’Connell and Wesley Mann, Larchmont native Zackman and Ercole — simultaneously retelling, and sending up, Hitchcock’s film. The speed of the costume changes is dizzying, the pace of the story relentless, the comedy sustained.
O’Connell’s characters include a music-hall emcee, a trench-coated spy, a busy-footed milkman (whose uniform, in one of the evening’s several nods to Hitchcock, reads “N. Bates”), a traveling salesman, a paperboy, a society woman, a cop, a reporter, a sheriff, a google-eyed political committeeman, an innkeeper’s randy wife, and a loopy inspector.
Festival regulars know that the gleam in O’Connell’s eye is a sure sign to expect the unexpected, and he mines each character for a unique physical or vocal tic, something to set him (or her) apart. That typically spells comic doom for those who must share the stage with him, as his withering ad-libbing and commitment to each character — gifts from the theater gods — present a near impossible test of resolve and stamina. You try and keep a straight face while he channels Peter Sellers’ Dr. Strangelove in a deliciously over-the-top performance. Not easy.
The rubber-faced Mann, likewise, never rests, playing a trench-coated spy, a cleaning lady, a traveling salesman, a cop, a railroad conductor, a crofter, a society woman, a kilted innkeeper and the unforgettable Mr. Memory, a character whose mental powers require the delivery of one particularly long monologue. Mann’s charms are in volleying back whatever is hit his way, deflecting it with a glance, putting his own economical spin on it. Watch him, as the Scottish crofter, deliver a pre-meal grace that would make Calvin blush and you’ll see what Mann brings to the proceedings.
Combine these comic forces and you’ve got something special, never more so than when Mann and O’Connell, each playing two characters, perform a four-person scene by donning and doffing hats, wigs and bits of costume. It’s a master class in physical comedy — and they do it twice.
Zackman plays all of the other female roles, from the superbly mysterious Annabella (“I haff no country”) to the windswept farmer’s wife, Margaret, to Pamela, who becomes Hannay’s love interest. Her facility with voices and physical comedy makes whatever she touches shine. The range of characters she breathes life into here — each honest, real, indelible — is remarkable.
Ercole ably handles the physical comedy, and plays it straight under a relentless barrage of clowning and accents. In this way, perhaps his is the toughest role. The scene when the bickering Hannay and Pamela, handcuffed together, remove her soaked stockings, is worth the price of admission, a study in economy and character.
William Neal’s excellent sound design, which constitutes another character in “The 39 Steps,” is handled seamlessly. Amy Clark’s costumes, likewise, help to delineate characters, although all that wool and tweed added a degree of difficulty to the proceedings when opening-night temperatures hovered near 100 degrees.
Part of the joy of “The 39 Steps” — and such recent festival small-ensemble shows as “Bombitty,” “The Complete Works of William Shakesepeare (Abridged)” and last summer’s “Around the World in Eighty Days” — is in watching the actors getting painted into corners out of which they must extricate themselves.
We watch the gears turning as they deftly devise escapes, only to encounter another in the next scene.
It’s a sure cure for whatever bores you.
“The 39 Steps” in repertory with “Romeo and Juliet” and “Love’s Labours Lost” (which opens June 30) through Labor Day weekend. Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, Boscobel Restoration, Route 9D, Garrison. $37 to $60. 845-265-9575. www.hvshakespeare.org.