Cloverdale Playhouse: The 39 Steps

By on 10 February, 2017 in Art, Fun, Kate and Stephen with 0 Comments
Photo by Mark Dauber

Photo by Mark Dauber

One of many benefits of community theater is how close you are to the stage. The intimacy of productions at the Cloverdale Playhouse is something really special. You can, at times, feel like you are part of the production. And while it’s true that from time to time we’ve seen the “fourth wall” broken at the Playhouse, we’ve really never seen anything quite like the current production of The 39 Steps.

The play, which opened last night, is kind of like what might happen if a few (incredibly skilled) friends got together in an apartment and agreed to make a version of the classic 1935 Hitchcock film. How do you translate a sprawling international adventure epic into a small space? With incredible innovation, of course.

The sets and costumes are effective prompts and minimalist suggestions. A cast of 100 characters is portrayed by four humans, who seamlessly (mostly) switch between an astonishing array of characters with accents ranging from the familiar to the incomprehensible. It’s dazzling and consistently engaging to see people flip between characters at a breakneck pace.

For a mystery, the play’s conceit is fairly straightforward (and very Hitchcockian, even before there was such a thing) — an innocent and relatively blank slate of a man gets pulled into a conspiracy. His empty life is given meaning, and chases a MacGuffin around for a while. There’s a beautiful blonde, a series of misunderstandings, and the possibility of global conspiracy and calamity. All the while, Clown 1 and Clown 2 (Shane Murphy and Cushing Phillips III) rush around arranging props, changing outfits and generally providing scaffolding necessary for Tate Pollock (phenomenal as protagonist Richard Hannay) and Sarah Adkins (playing several roles) to act out the main plot.

If this seems exhausting and haphazard, you should see it in person. There are moments during the play when it seems unlikely that the next scene will be pulled off without disruption, and yet it always seemed to get there. The characters do roam a bit throughout the Playhouse, and between that and clever use of Wile-E-Coyote-esque “Applause” signs, the audience is really brought in as a character in the play. Even times where it felt like there was a flub or a miscue, it was hard to tell if it was intentional and done for laughs or not. This speaks to outstanding direction by Sarah Walker Thornton and tremendous flexibility (and improvisational skills) on the part of the cast.

The play is so fun, with so many little details that grab your eyes. It positively whizzes by. It’s a bit of a confection, to be sure, but not everything the Playhouse offers must be serious all of the time. The performances are memorable and demonstrate great energy and stamina. The scenes are memorable, especially a bit of madcap character switching set on a train and some great staging to simulate an airplane.

If winter (or politics) have you a bit blue, The 39 Steps offers a gentle and amusing remedy, as well as a great reminder of the fun of live theater. You should go see this one, while it lasts (only until Feb. 19). We can cobble together a whirlwind of settings, suggestive costumes that convey a diverse cast, and even talented actors playing multiple roles in a single scene. But at the base of it all is the simple power of a great narrative.

With last night’s premiere of The 39 Steps, the new season at the Cloverdale Playhouse is off to a great start. We’re looking forward to seeing more with the outstanding array of plays this season.

Kate and Stephen are Midtown residents with two cats, a dog, 18 fish, a garden, an old house and a sense of adventure. They write about life in Midtown here and about life in Montgomery at their blog Lost in Montgomery.

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