"The 39 Steps" at 6th Street Playhouse Studio Theatre, Santa Rosa CA

Photos by Eric Chazankin

Photo 1: (from left) Paul Huberty, April Krautner, Larry Williams
Photo 2: (photogs) Larry Williams, Paul Huberty
(in clinch) Adam Burkholder, April Krautner

Reviewed by Suzanne and Greg Angeo

Surrender to the Silliness

“The 39 Steps” is ambitious, strenuously funny, and perhaps the most truly unique theatrical presentation at 6th Street in recent memory. It’s a murder mystery complete with spies, secret organizations, narrow escapes, romance on the run…and silly walks. Come prepared to laugh till it hurts.

The idea for the story was taken from the 1915 novel by John Buchan, which inspired the 1935 film by Alfred Hitchcock, considered one of his best. Then it was adapted by Patrick Barlow, who turned the plot on its head with irreverent and insanely funny twists. He also called for the dozens of roles to be played onstage by only four actors, a theatrical device that has been used for many years. The first productions were in England beginning in 2005 in Leeds, moving to London’s West End by 2006. Its Broadway premiere was in 2008 where it won Drama Desk Awards and two Tonys.

The setting is pre-WWII London, with Nazi spies everywhere, plotting unimaginable mayhem. When ordinary citizen Richard Hannay aids a lady in distress, the lovely Annabella Schmidt, little does he know what lies ahead. There are train chases, plane crashes, strangely creaky doors and spoofy references to some of Hitchcock’s most well-known films. The reimagined story faithfully preserves Hitchcock’s famous “McGuffin” – his word for the basically incidental “something” in the story that his characters are chasing after, pulling the audience merrily along. In “North by Northwest” it was microfilm. In “The 39 Steps” it’s military secrets, and here the McGuffin ramains firmly in second place to the wildly entertaining situational mechanics that drive the characters.

Adam Burkholder, the lone actor with a single role as the heroic everyman Richard Hannay, displays incandescent flashes of Chaplinesque reactions and physicality. April Krautner in three roles (Annabella/Pamela/Margaret) has some of the most hysterically funny scenes in the entire play. The audience was laughing so hard it was difficult for some to breathe. Another crowd pleaser is Larry Williams who played dozens of roles. At one point he and his partner-in-clowning, Paul Huberty, demonstrate a dizzying array of characters just by changing hats - from porter to newsboy to constable to salesman and back again.

The roles are physically demanding, the pacing frenetic but brilliantly synchronized. There is a truly amazing scene on a speeding train where you really believe, through the physical illusion of the actors’ vigorously expressive pantomime, that their hair and clothing are being blown by the wind.

The second act seemed to drag a bit after the mad adrenaline rush of the first. Could the slowdown be due to exhaustion of the players? Maybe pacing adjustments would do the trick here. But things picked up again in due course.

Director Craig Miller, who wears three hats himself at 6th Street – as Stage Director, Sound Designer and Artistic Director – has employed some very nice staging techniques and has the actors forming a cohesive unit, with timing so essential to this kind of comic farce. The artistic staff deserves special mention for their efforts, including costume designer Pamela Johnson, scenic and lighting designer Vincent Mothersbaugh and most notably Michael Greene in charge of hair, wigs and makeup. 6th Street has scored again with this one, a marvel of physical comedy and plotline gymnastics that should delight anyone who loves to laugh.

When: Now through January 22, 2012
8:00 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays
2:00 p.m. Sundays
2:00 p.m. Saturday, January 21
Tickets: $10 to $25 (general seating)
Location: Studio Theatre at 6th Street Playhouse
52 West 6th Street, Santa Rosa CA
Phone: 707-523-4185
Website: www.6thstreetplayhouse.com