Pat Launer, Center Stage on KSDS JAZZ88
August 23, 2013
Messing with masterworks. Two theaters make merry mischief, with more or less success.
“The 39 Steps” is a deliciously hilarious mashup of Hitchcock movie titles that turns a film landmark into a crazy-quilt acting tour de force for four performers playing 40 roles. The original film, and the book it was based on, were not comical; this was an intense action thriller, the 1935 movie featuring a German megalomaniac extolling his Master Race, while stealing state secrets from Britain. There are plenty of thrills in the theatrical version, adapted by Patrick Barlow; but the spy caper takes a backseat to the wacky, low-budget shenanigans: waving coats by hand to signify rushing wind, climbing high stepladders for bridges, carrying props on and offstage.
It’s a tremendous feat, getting the comedy, the timing and the split-second costume changes just right. You need a superb and comically gifted cast, a stellar crew and a skillful director to mastermind the magic.
Lamb’s Players Theatre has it all, and then-some. Deborah Gilmour Smyth helms an extraordinary ensemble, centered by handsome David S. Humphrey as the hapless Richard Hannay , sitting in his London flat and bemoaning his boring fate. Before he can say Alfred Hitchcock, there’s an attractive young woman slumped across his lap with a knife in her back. He’s accused of murder and on the run… trying to out-smart the short-fingered vulgarian who’s trying to smuggle information out of the country, something involving the mysterious 39 Steps.
Solving the mystery is not half as engaging as the riotous stage business that gets us there: quick-change accents, genders and outfits – as the action sprints from London to Scotland, from bouncing and hiding in trains to hanging off the aforementioned bridge.
Hannay’s unwilling partner in crime, hooked to him by handcuffs, is delightfully portrayed by Kelsey Venter, who’s also the first-scene spy and a sex-starved farm-wife. Some of her wigs are better than others, but all her characters are funny. Then there’s Jesse Abeel and Robert Smyth, who play all the other eccentrics, male and female, intelligible or not. The props and costumes, musical interludes and pacing are terrific. This may not be Hitchcock, but it certainly isn’t for The Birds!
Here in the waning days of August, nothing beats “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The Old Globe production is amusingly straightforward; Intrepid Shakespeare just closed the reprise of its marvelous doo-wop musical version. Now along comes ion theatre, with its loosy-goosey disco incarnation, called “Ass, or A Midsummer Night’s Fever.” There’s more shtick than Shakespeare, and plenty of polyester, lamé , audience participation, line-dance instruction and more silliness than you can shake a light-sabre at. Not my ‘70s scene, but if that music be your food of love, boogie on.
“ ASS, OR A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S FEVER” runs through August 24 at ion theatre, on the edge of Hillcrest.
“THE 39 STEPS” continues through September 22 at Lamb’s Players Theatre in Coronado.
©2013 PAT LAUNER