Review: “The 39 Steps” is Fast, Furious, Hilarious at Shakespeare & Co. thru Nov. 4

Inspired by the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock film of the same name, The 39 Steps has to be the most maniacal play ever devised. Perhaps the funniest and most jaw dropping scene is a chase across the top of a speeding train. This little bit of theatre magic is achieved with four trunks and an equal number of actors who are clearly out of their gourds, taking their lives in their hands nevertheless. And then there is the fun, the hilarity. So much, and with a hundred costume changes, there’s hardly time to catch your breath. Bring oxygen if you are an inveterate laughter.

The 39 Steps at Shakespeare & Company. Photos: Kevin Sprague.

Each Fall Shakespeare and Company challenges Mother Nature to a duel. Outside, it’s the gorgeous changing of the leaves, while inside there’s the annual changing of the costumes in the Bernstein Theatre where the months of September and October see the annual testing of the actors.

Long after the leaves have dropped from the trees, dozens of blouses, top hats and wigs will be getting their moment in the spotlight before they’re gone in a swirl of color and fabric. The actors often have less than a second or two to change. For this lucky quartet, it is like running a marathon every night. Some theatre is mentally challenging, but this sort of farce is the most demanding – physically – of all. Of course audiences in the Berkshires have learned not to worry about the funny stuff, Tony Simotes and his company specialize in it.

Matter of fact, Simotes directed the last outing, Hound of the Baskervilles (first in 2009, then repeated it on the company’s larger stage in 2011), The 39 Steps is directed by Jonathan Croy who helmed The Real Inspector Hound in 2009 and played in the Hound of the Baskervilles. All three follow a similar formula for their laughs.

Jason Asprey (l) and Elizabeth Aspenlieder. Kevin Sprague Photos.

As delightful as the previous offerings have proved to be, The 39 Steps clearly has the best cast to date, topped by the marvelous Jason Asprey who plays the incredibly handsome Richard Hannay, the accused murderer. No matter how dire the straits he found himself in, his characterization of the besieged hero was perfection itself, slightly underplayed, with typically British reserve even as his life is about to end. (Or was it?)

We have come to expect a lot from Elizabeth Aspenlieder. She has a real knack for making people laugh, even when a prop malfunctions as it did opening night. (The handcuffs came undone at a critical point where she and the hero are fouled up on a fence.) Her improv added to the laughs, even as she enjoyed the challenge of the moment. How incredibly lucky we have her here in the Berkshires.

Aspenlieder played not one, but three roles with equal zeal and imagination. Early on, dressed in full noir attire as Annabella Schmidt, she was the epitome of 30’s sophistication and sexuality. Mary Readinger who did the costumes is a genius. And the black wig for Schmidt was so un-Aspenlieder that for the first few moments I could not believe it was her on stage. As she switched into her other two roles, each was drawn with a fresh characterization, and with Margaret McTyte she was allowed to indulge in some of the most hilarious bits of stage business of the evening, sometimes blatant,sometimes subtle.

Josh Aaron McCabe ,Jason Asprey and the kitty. Photo: Kevin Sprague.

Josh Aaron McCabe adopted a bald pate for his dozen plus roles, upon which he placed all manner of wigs, hats and props in order to serve up his characters. From underwear salesman to a hilarious Mrs. MacGarrigle, McCabe never slowed, even continued to don a jacket as he delivered his lines. A brilliant actor in his own right, his comedy side continues to develop the same complexity and depth he brings to his more serious roles at other times of the year. One of the privileges of a critic is to be able to see gifted actors like McCabe continue to develop their already considerable skills as the years go by.

David Joseph continues to amaze me each time I see him on stage. Last year it was his singing voice which I heard for the first time, this year it is his mastery of the quick-o, change-o whirlwind pace of this play. His most successful role was as Mr. Memory, around whom the play ultimately revolved. Most hilarious was his elderly Angus MacQuarrie which the audience adored.

Mr. Memory is just one of many parts superbly played by David Joseph.

At this point it must be said that no kittens are actually harmed in this production. The clever and playful cat that Josh Aaron McCabe deployed as the villain of the piece was simply a bit of muppetry gone terribly wrong. It is probably not a reach, however, to assume the furball gets a good washing after every show.

Equally impressive and deserving of their own huzzahs is the competent technical and production crew of The 39 Steps. Usually unsung heroes of any production, those who run the lighting and sound boards are critical to the success of a show like this. Sure, they have digitalized the presets and such, but theatre is still a handcrafted business. Lights get hung and focused. Sound cues are chosen and prepared for use. But that is just the beginning.

From their perch (house left, above the audience) they are listening to the dialogue just as intently as the cast to catch their cues, the precise moment for a phone to ring, or a fireplace to begin glowing. Indeed, in this show there are several laughs that come not from the actors, but from the perfect timing of the lights, or sound effect. And backstage there is someone helping with costume changes, while stagehands, dressed as spies, move the few set pieces around with speed and precision.

The 39 Steps is an ensemble effort. Photo: Kevin Sprague.

An Army, they say, travels on its stomach, but a great show is made possible as much by a team of creative people who may have no lines, but without whom the whole enterprise would stop dead in its tracks.

At the end of the show, the audience spontaneously and unanimously jumped to its feet with an authentic standing ovation. One hopes that everyone who was involved in The 39 Steps knew it was for them. Individually everyone did a great job, but together they have created a masterpiece of theatre magic that puts joy in the soul, and leaves you feeling refreshed, uplifted and very much entertained.

Shakespeare & Company presents The 39 Steps, adapted by Patrick Barlow from the novel by John Buchan, from the movie by Alfred Hitchcock. Directed and Set Design by Johathan Croy, Lighting Design by Stephen Ball, Costume Design by Mary Readinger, Sound Design by Michael Pfeiffer, Stage Manager – Diane Healy, Rehearsal Stage Manager – Hope Rose Kelly. Cast: Elizabeth Aspenlieder, Jason Asprey, David Joseph, Josh Aaron McCabe. September 22 to November 4, 2012 at the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre, Lenox, MA. About two hours including one fifteen minute intermission. Box Office 413-637-3353

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