Here at the Rep, we’re proud to be part of the thriving theatre and arts community that Seattle is known for. In the interest of adding to the dialogue about the work we produce, we’ve invited several theatre artists from the Seattle area to be among the first to see our production of The 39 Steps and offer their responses to the show on our blog.
It's practically impossible to discuss The 39 Steps the play without discussing the classic Alfred Hitchcock film it's based on. And when you're discussing the juncture of film and theatre, you'd be hard pressed to talk to anyone more savvy than blogger and arts aficionado Warren Etheredge. We're excited to bring readers Warren's take on the production, direct from The Warren Report. And if you can't get enough of him here, don't fret. Warren will be presenting our pre-play discussion of The 39 Steps here at the Rep on October 15th at 7 pm in the rotunda. Be sure to join us that evening for what's sure to be a night of lively entertainment both on stage and off.
It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken. It takes a tougher man to tenderize Hitchcock. Steely scriptor Patrick Barlow has pounded and punched up The 39 Steps, transforming Alfred’s 1935 flick into a frivolous 4-person stage show — now marinating at Seattle Rep — that prioritizes silliness over suspense. This is an acceptable bargain given the light touch of the original and the wisdom of creating a new vision rather than just replicating the old. (Gus van Sant’s virtual shot-for-shot remake of Psycho proved that there is more to Hitchock’s genius than simply mise-en-scene.) Bravely, Barlow not only wrestles Alfred’s ghost, he also tangles with Charles Ludlam’s specter. Surely within this re-imagining there is more than a pinch of Ludlam’s presentations at The Ridiculous Theatrical Company. And it is in this context that these 39 Steps have, surprisingly, more difficulty competing.
Barlow boasts chutzpah and craftsmanship. With the audacious assistance of director Maria Aitken, this adaptation unspools energetically on stage. The technical cleverness of the production is worth the price of admission. How often will you see a train-top chase or North BY Northwest’s bi-plane rundown materialize below a proscenium arch? No question there is enough flash to stun theater-goers and to appease movie-lovers. But what about the laughs? Barlow recognizes the humor in the time-honored. He re-plays the screenplay’s set-ups at 78rpm, an obvious and successful student of the louder, faster, funnier school. He also indulges the cheap seats with shouts-out to many of Hitchcock’s most famous titles, allowing even the dimmest patron to feel in on the joke/s. However, both creator and cast have trouble nailing the essence of camp, thus far, failing to transition from note-hitting send-up to irreverent, yet earnest, homage. Ludlam’s genius was his ability to satirically deconstruct classics while secretly celebrating their enduring magic. Ludlam, with partner Everett Quinton, could plunge a dagger into Shakespeare’s back while smilingly shaking his hand and being honored to make the acquaintance. It is conceivable that this cast will eventually come closer, but at the preview I saw — the first, I believe — the actors appeared preoccupied with hitting their marks moreso than embracing the duality of their roles. Camp is best when its players can maintain the veracity of the characters while still engaging the audience by luxuriating in the theatrical artifice and textual tomfoolery. (I suspect that Scott Parkinson and Eric Hissom, already amusing, will come closest to fully embodying the spirit.)
The 39 Steps surpasses the two cinematic remakes (1954, 1978) and provides a diverting night-out capable of making me neglect — never forget! — Hitchcock while pining for the absence of Ludlam.