Stage adaptation of Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps at Boscobel

The cast of The 39 Steps’ at Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival (photo by William Marsh)

The Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival makes The 39 Steps – adapted by Patrick Barlow from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 Nazi spy thriller starring Robert Donat, based on a 1915 novel by John Buchan, and directed by Russell Treyz – its own. A play of inspired and incandescent lunacy, it is audacious, funny as hell and in many ways captures the spirit of all those unknown traveling theater troupes throughout history who have brought plays good and bad to the outlying populace.

Barlow’s original idea was to have the entire Hitchcock film turned into a play performed by just four actors. One plays Richard Hannay (the Donat role); another portrays all three of Hannay’s love interests; and two other actors play every other character in the show: various cops, a milkman, a Scottish farmer, an evil professor, a randy Scottish concierge and her husband, a newspaper boy, lingerie salesmen on a train, a London Palladium host and of course, Mr. Memory, whose “gift” saves Hannay (and dear old England) in the end.

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“This often requires lightning-fast quick changes, and occasionally for them to play multiple characters at once,” said Treyz. “The film’s serious spy story becomes a comedy, and the script is full of allusions to (and puns on the titles of) other Hitchcock films, including Rear Window, Psycho, Vertigo and North by Northwest.” The one major change to the play from its Broadway days is the addition of two Stagehands, who act as scenic elements and props, creating sound effects and moving about a few steamer trunks that at various times double for a train, a car, a couple of beds, a dais and a few other pieces of furniture.

And since this is a “cast-driven” production, it would be impossible to come up with a better quartet than the four Hudson Valley Shakespeare veterans who play all the roles: Richard Ercole (Hannay), Gabra Zackman (the three love interests), Jason O’Connell (milkman, various cops, spy, lingerie salesman, Palladium host, randy woman concierge, Scotland yard inspector and evil professor) and Wesley Mann (spy, various cops, Mr. Memory, Scottish farmer, husband of randy concierge and political speaker).

Ercole and Zackman play the straight men to O’Connell and Mann, who not only chew the scenery and props (literally) but spit them out, too. They are a revelation. O’Connell is his usual manic self, delivering rapid-fire dialogue upon rapid-fire dialogue, and eventually is left as two characters arguing with himself; while Mann plays it with broad comedic strokes, vaudevillelike, with exaggerated physicality. They complement each other perfectly. Zackman is perfectly sinister/sweet/nerdy as Annabella Schmidt the spy, as Elizabeth the Scottish farmer’s young lovestruck wife and as Pamela, who first meets Hannay on the train and soon becomes “attached” to him. And Ercole is a Donat-on-the-edge: smugly incompetent, permanently perplexed, full of bravado and heroic despite himself. The perfect cast.

But where would this play be without the Stagehands? Their “characters” were conceived by Treyz because of the unique nature of the stage at Boscobel, turning what was essentially a two-dimensional approach in New York, complete with props (for the audience saw the same view of the performance) to a three-dimensional one at the tent at Boscobel. “That challenge also includes releasing the reliance on scenery and technical facilities and discovering new ways to suggest furniture, settings, lighting and special effects without the wing space and tightly controlled stage area of a traditional proscenium theater.”

And into this “thankless” anthropomorphic role stepped two of the youngest members at Hudson Valley Shakespeare: Jack Mackie and Marianna Caldwell, whose impersonations of the above chairs, lights, rivers, fences, headlights and more, brilliantly – and with great fun – allow the other four to play freely in our imagination. And play freely they do, changing from one character to another, bouncing off each other and us, the audience, with nothing short of Hitchcockian panache.

Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival’s The 39 Steps, at beautiful Boscobel in Cold Spring, will stage performances on Friday, July 13 at 8 p.m.; Sunday, July 15 at 7 p.m.; Friday, July 20 at 8 p.m.; Tuesday, July 24 at 7 p.m.; Thursday, July 26 at 7 p.m.; and Sunday, July 29 at 7 p.m. For tickets and more information, call (845) 265-9575 or visit hvshakespeare.org.

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