Frames to Floorboards

3 Seconds Under A Streetlight with The Milwaukee Rep’s 39 Steps

Jan. 16, 2011
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Part of the appeal of theatre is the transformation of reality. Under ideal conditions, an audience is transported somewhere else for the duration of the play. Ideally, a group of actors and various production elements can convince an audience on some level that they’re more than just a roomful of people pretending. Patrick Barlow’s comic adaptation of The 39 Steps plays with the illusion for comic effect. The Milwaukee premiere, which opened with the Rep this past week, brings Alfred Hitchcock’s classic suspense thriller to the stage of the Quadracci Powerhouse Theatre with brief flashes of extreme cleverness.

Four actors play countless roles in a story that moves quite swiftly from residential room to train to farm to lavish estate and so on . . . all in a single Bill Clarke set that looks a bit like a stylishly decaying classic cinema palace. Props cover much of the weight of establishing scenery. Wooden frames stand-in for windows. Cardboard facades stand in for people in a parade. Bits of slightly more elaborate scenery shift on and off the stage. Costume quick changes take the form of quick hat switches onstage, sometimes in mid-sentence. A cast of comic talents including Reese Madigan (who plays protagonist Richard Hannay,) Gerard Neugent, John Pribyl and Helen Anker (who play everyone else) swing quite gracefully through a presentation of a cloak and dagger suspense story that, with intermission, is only a bit longer than the 86 minute film that inspired it.

Based on a story by Scottish novelist John Buchan, the plot is a very simple and visceral story of a man unwittingly caught-up in circumstances beyond his control that could very well kill him. Anyone familiar with this type of story will find it very easy to follow. That being said, this is one of those rare instances where seeing the film right before going to see the stage play actually helps quite a bit. So much of the humor is bizarrely specific to the film. There are visual references that make it to the stage in the form of clever little comedic jabs at the overwhelmingly influential 1935 film. My favorite involves a streetlight.

Early-on, Hannay has taken home a woman claiming to be a spy on the run from a couple of men. She asks him to look outside if he doesn’t believe her. He does. Roughly 12 minutes and 29 seconds into the film, there’s this beautiful shot of a street corner at night . . . a couple of trench coated figures stand beneath the lamp, casing perfect shadows. The entire scene was filmed on a soundstage somewhere except for a brief, dramatic 3 second shot of a couple of guys beneath a streetlamp at night. There didn’t seem to be any attempt to bring that shot into the visual flow of the rest of the scene. It almost seemed to come from an entirely different movie—even casually watching the film, it looked like Hitchcock had painstakingly coaxed those three seconds out of an Edward Hopper painting.

Those three seconds on film become a clever gag in the stage comedy. When Madigan’s Hannay looks out the window, Neugent and Pribyl quickly carry a streetlamp onstage and promptly stand under it in a classy and comically sudden approximation of those three seconds in the film right down to the placement of the shadows . . . and then promptly start to take the streetlamp away—only to have to suddenly set it up again when Reese takes another look. It’s one of quite a few visual gags drawn straight out of the film that make The 39 Steps worth watching at home prior to the show for those who might have the time.

The Milwaukee Rep’s production of The 39 Stepsruns through February 13th, 2011 at the Quadracci Powerhouse Theatre. For reservations, call 414-224-9490. A concise review of the show runs in the next Shepherd-Express.


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