The spy adventure has gone through plenty of permutations since John Buchan wrote The 39 Steps in 1915 (and since Alfred Hitchcock's adaptation in 1935), but the Guthrie Theater production proves there's still plenty of entertainment in the story's old bones, especially when mixed with a spoof-filled script and an extremely talented quartet of actors who bring the story's dozens of characters to life.
Patrick Barlow's script plays The 39 Steps as a farce, which could be disaster in lesser hands. There's nothing worse than a tone-deaf piece that mocks without comprehending. Barlow, however, understands the conventions that have long kept the spy genre afloat. There are chance encounters aplenty, along with shady characters, shadowy meetings, and a main character on the run after being accused of murder.
Despite all of the spoofing, The 39 Steps really is a cracking good yarn, with plenty of narrow escapes, double crosses, and a central MacGuffin—what are the 39 steps anyway?—that keeps you engaged without being too disappointed by the eventual revelation. Hitchcock made plenty of changes in bringing the story to the screen, and the play includes its own alterations, with knowing references throughout to the many other movies Hitchcock made over the following decades.
Now, anyone who has endured a Scary Movie film knows that it takes more than just making fun of the basic ideas to craft a full evening of entertainment. It helps if the people involved have not just an understanding of what is being spoofed but a real love for the material. It's clear that Barlow, along with the Guthrie actors and creators, has that love.
The game Robert O. Berdahl stars as Richard Hannay, a bored Londoner who, while at the theater one night, meets a mysterious woman, who in turn imparts the tantalizing pieces of a secret before being murdered. Accused of the crime, Hannay goes on the run, following every nugget of information he has in a desperate attempt to stop the bad guys and clear his name. While Berdahl plays the closest thing to a straight man here, he gets plenty of chances to engage in comedy, such as when he finds himself giving an impromptu speech at a political rally, all the while trying to hide the handcuff on his arm.
The always good Sarah Agnew plays the main women characters, including the mysterious German who gets offed at the beginning and another innocent who gets entangled in the story—quite literally, as she winds up at the other end of the handcuffs. Each of Agnew's characters has her quirks, and she expertly draws out the humor throughout. She and Berdahl have a series of highlight moments while joined Defiant Ones style. Sure, having trouble negotiating a fence or going to sleep while joined at the wrist may be pretty old comedy beats, but these two perform so sharply that they'd be funny after the hundreth time they did them.
Rounding out the cast, and playing dozens of roles, sometimes multiples in the same scene, are Jim Lichtscheidl and Luverne Seifert as the two clowns. They have a grand time, be it as bad vaudevillians (the essential Mr. Memory), traveling salesmen, clueless cops, a bevy of bad guys, or assorted Scotsmen (the script seems to take real delight with these parodies). Both Lichtscheidl and Seifert are talented physical actors, and they have an apt showcase.
Joel Sass directs with considerable flair, letting both the comedy and the story have their moments. The whole production is packed with Hitchcockian asides and in jokes: Even the opening "turn off your cell phones" speech gets a droll remaking. A middle shadow-puppet scene (crafted by local master Michael Sommers) includes riffs on North by Northwest, The Birds, and King Kong.
That sense of whimsy fuels a lot of what goes on here, as the cast essentially bring a film to life on stage with the most limited of resources (by designer Richard Hoover). So a chase on top of a train doesn't get played out with an elaborate set, just a handful of trunks, some stirring music, and four actors creating a sense of motion with their bodies and voices. In other words, it has the kind of transformation you're looking for out of a night at the theater.