“The 39 Steps” – Part I
(The 39 Steps, directed by Sean Daniels, opens October 22 at Geva Theatre)
Back in 2008 I had tickets to Roundabout Theatre’s production of The 39 Steps as part of my subscription. My friend Mary Beth had seen the play in London and advised me that I would hate it, so I donated my tickets back to the theatre. Except for not agreeing about musicals (I love them, she hates them), we usually have the same taste in theatre, so I trusted her implicitly. When I told another friend, Nanette, that I was not necessarily looking forward to ‘cohorting’ for this show, she told me how much she had enjoyed the Roundabout production, as well as one at a local repertory theatre in Florida. And I trust her taste, too! So now I was in a quandary, and curious about this show that had evoked such different reactions from two of my best friends. Now I had to see this play, and I have a unique opportunity as a ‘cohort’ to watch it from read-through through rehearsals to production.
In preparation for being a cohort on this play at Geva Theatre, I rented the original 1935 Hitchcock film (which I’d never seen), and I’m glad I did, because not only could I see how it begged to be parodied, but it laid the foundation for me to understand many of the jokes in the play that I otherwise might not. And even then, I’m sure I still missed quite a few! Luckily for Rochester, the Little Theatre is running a Hitchcock film series (http://thelittle.org/hitchcock), and has invited the Geva actors to post-screening talk-backs.
At the Meet & Greet for The 39 Steps, Sean Daniels introduced the show and the four actors who will be playing all of the roles. He explained that he will try to put in additional Hitchcock references, since Rochester has a relatively well-educated movie audience (he added that “audiences like to come to the theatre and feel smart” and he’s so right – there’s something self-congratulatory about getting a reference or a joke, or at least not feeling left out if you don’t!). He called The 39 Steps a “torture play,” in which the audience watches the actors sweat, as well as “a celebration of all things theatrical and cinema.” Since Hitchcock’s use of lighting informs the action, Sean’s production will use “cinematic lighting in a theatrical setting” to achieve a similar effect. I particularly liked his description of the show as being “built to break”: that the action will be so fast-paced, with props coming in and out and actors donning and discarding costumes and roles, that each performance is bound to be unique in its mishaps or near-mishaps.
After the introductions, and a break for the union members to vote in private on various issues (including rehearsal schedules and lunch break duration), they did the first read-through of the script. The play follows the plot and script of the movie, although not religiously, and highlights many of the laughable moments of the movie (which may not have been laughable in 1935?) in some additional bits of silliness. The actors had already found their various British accents, with only occasionally mispronunciations, which I’m sure will be corrected in rehearsals.
I found myself chuckling quite a bit, and even laughing out loud occasionally. So while I still trust both of my friends’ taste in shows, I think I’m inclined to give my friend Nanette the benefit of the doubt on this one… I look forward to future rehearsals and watching the hijinks ensue!” – maggie