Footlight Players' The 39 Steps delightfully hams up Hitchcock 

Great Scots!


Long before the blood-curdling, box office-shattering shower slaughter in Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock was well into plying his cinematic trade in his native England. In 1935 he released his first talkie there, the black-and-white thriller The 39 Steps, which was set on the Scottish Highlands and involved an innocent man on the lam, an early take on a theme that card-carrying Hitchcock heads should easily spot in his later masterworks (cue North by Northwest).

There are other hints of horrors to come in The 39 Steps, like inscrutable conspiracies, fetching blonde love interests, and stock cameo characters. What's more, it is jolly good fun to sleuth out those foreshadowing components — and indulge in the trademark mirth of the "Master of Suspense." That's just what British playwright Patrick Barlow has endeavored in his stage adaptation of Scottish novelist John Buchan's 1914 thriller, which served as fodder for the film and helped establish Hitchcock as a directorial force of darkly smart films.

With ingenious economy of set and efficiency of cast, The Footlight Players now takes a spirited stab at the work in a hilarious, high-energy production of The 39 Steps that is a bit reminiscent, in tone and goof-factor, of a Mel Brooks spoof, and brimming with sight gags, insidery Hitchcock bits, and 1930s urbane cheer. It's the perfect serving of wit and chill for an October evening at the Queen Street Playhouse, and is certain to delight those who fancy classic movies and madcap fun alike.

For the play, director Allison Brower has gathered four actors, with three of them antically juggling multiple parts to impressive, chuckle-worthy end. The central character is Richard Hannay, the suave Scot who amiably kicked about Buchan's series, getting to the bottom of all manner of things murderous and mystery-rich. Here, he is played with bemused command by Kyle Barnette, who gamely tackles the role with vigorous physical comedy.

Through Hannay, we then meet a secession of supporting and minor characters who switch out apparel and accents with breakneck speed, both advancing the plot and unleashing the laughs. Together, they punctuate Hannay's sudden dash to Scotland in pursuit of the truth of a nefarious group pegged as the reason that a dead woman is in the parlor of his London flat.

About that dead woman: Beth Curley takes on the fierce Dietrichesque femme fatale, Annabella Schmidt; the brogue-laden farmer's wife Margaret; and platinum love interest Pamela with equal aplomb, lending sharp jolts of energy to Barnette's unflappable sport. Similarly, Erik Brower as Clown 1 and Michael Okas as Clown 2 cut a wonderfully silly, ever-nimble swath through the British Isles, bending gender and scrambling into discreet fictional stereotypes as Hannay presses on to get to the meat of the murder.

More fun still can be had at the play's peppering of seminal Hitchcock moments from his other works throughout the text, from the droll score that accompanied his television series to, yes, a manic onslaught of birds on a car window. Noodling out the origin of each gag is a lighthearted hunt in and of itself, and it's almost impossible to suppress the impulse to whisper to your seatmate when, by George, you've got it.

There's more entertainment, too, in the form of clever, yet never fussy shadowed scrims and sleight-of-hand scene shifts where actors pop up on the other side of the stage. It's all quite merry and quite masterful, as actors and set pieces scoot in and out, establishing and reestablishing place and persona with charge and charm. And this production ably kept up the pace, even when the play lags a tad in the second act.

That's OK, though, as we've had more than our share of enjoyment along the way. It's no great headwrecker to deduce that you will, too, if you make a run for it now to nab a few tickets for the next show.

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