‘39 Steps’ a lively showcase
By Hedy Weiss Theater Criticfirstname.lastname@example.org July 13, 2012 1:28PM
‘THE 39 STEPS’
When: Through Aug. 26
Where: Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace
Info: (630) 530-0111; www.
Updated: August 15, 2012 6:05AM
Some might describe Patrick Barlow’s happily insane stage adaptation of “The 39 Steps” as an inspired sendup of Alfred Hitchcock’s film — the 1935 classic that combines elements of an espionage thriller with screwball romantic comedy.
Others might call the show an homage to all things theatrical — a giddy showcase in which prodigiously talented actors can take the audience on childlike flights of the imagination that involve the most basic arsenal of props and a loopy sense of play.
And still others might view it as a very British version of the Walter Mitty story — the tale of an ordinary man whose armchair fantasies transform him into a dashing and resourceful national hero of sorts.
But watching the four performers in director David New’s seamlessly played, physically thrilling, brilliantly realized production at Oakbrook’s Drury Lane Theatre, I’d call “The 39 Steps” a tour de force ballet (the rotation of bodies in a passenger train cabin is just one of countless memorable examples). It should also be said that this high-flying production leaves the wholly uninspired national tour of the Broadway edition, seen here several seasons ago, in the dust.
Leading the mayhem here is Peter Simon Hilton — the British actor with a long list of credits on both sides of the pond — who is a practiced hand at the daunting role of Richard Hannay, the rather passive English bachelor whose boredom drives him to the theater. (Set designer Kevin Depinet’s burnished old English proscenium frame is a beauty.)
Onstage is a novelty act by Mr. Memory (Paul Kalina, a 500 Clown veteran at his all-time sensational best here), and his sidekick (played by the marvelously morphing Jeff Dumas). But an even grander drama is set in motion in his balcony box with the arrival of a femme fatale (the delicious Angela Ingersoll, who easily reinvents the art of unclipping stockings from a garter belt). And very soon a gunshot will turn Hannay into a relentlessly pursued innocent man who makes his way through the lunatic highways, byways and personalities of Scotland, often chained to a woman who tries to undo him.
This panoramic chase, requiring split-second changes of costume, accent and body language, is accomplished largely through the acting and acrobatic prowess of the uniformly fabulous quartet of actors. Crucial to their work is the use of wheeled furniture and door frames, ladders that form a truly perilous bridge to nowhere, fog and wind machines, a slew of hilarious costumes and wigs (cheers for designer Tracy Dorman and Rick Jarvie), and what must be among the most nerve-jangling lineup of lighting cues (from designer Rita Pietraszek) and sound effects (by way of Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen).
All in all, a demonically demanding, laugh-out-loud frolic. Perfect for a summer night.