We’ve had three or four productions in St. Louis of The 39 Steps. Now The Alpha Players of Florissant is staging it.
They appear to be having fun doing it. That’s probably why they are doing it.
The 39 Steps is a farce. It began life as a serious novel, a spy thriller, by the English writer John Buchan, in 1915. A few people thought the novel had the makings of a good movie, so they made movies. One of them, in 1935, was Alfred Hitchcock. His was a big hit and multiple award-winner, and it’s become a classic.
In 1995, two English writers, Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon, saw that The 39 Steps, like many melodramas, might be fun to parody, something Magic Smoking Monkey reminds us now and then. They wrote the parody, with the hundred and more characters of the movie played by four actors. Patrick Barlow further adapted it in 2005, and it had a good run in London and won an Olivier as the best new comedy of the year. A couple of years later, it had a good run in New York. Now it has pretty good runs in lots of places.
“Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” Farce is even harder. It is a serious craft. Like any good craftsperson, the actor takes pleasure in doing good work. But that is something the audience sees only indirectly, if at all. What they see is the character doing ridiculous, silly, very human things, done precisely and with invention.
And the cast at Alpha, guided by their director Barbara Langa, are doing just that. They have cut themselves a little slack. The version they are using (their adaptation?) has six actors, not just four, two women, four men. Still, they play, as one reviewer counted, “150 roles. Their characters include a milkman, a newsboy, a cleaning woman, a train conductor, theatre performers, politicians, secret agents, husband-and-wife Scottish hoteliers, traveling lingerie salesmen and a wide variety of law enforcement officials. Their quick-change artistry is a running joke that never gets old, and if they ever seem dismayed by the challenge of changing hats, clothing, wigs and accents in fractions of a second, their frustration is right in the script.”
The fine farceurs at Alpha include characters described as Clowns 1, 2, and 3, played by Stephen Chamineak, Jordan Dennis, and Christopher Parker. Veronica McKelvie does a couple of women, including a counterspy who is murdered in the protagonist’s apartment, making him a wanted man. Kaitlin Grant, a recent graduate of the booming theatre program down at Southeast Missouri State, fetchingly plays a couple of women, including the stranger who winds up handcuffed to the protagonist. Nikita Gahr plays that protagonist and only that protagonist, a Canadian vacationing in London who somehow gets caught up in these spy games.
The production lists no set designer, as not much set was provided, with a black drop used smartly to hide upstage set changes while the show continued downstage, and Caylee Thomas’s props filled the space as needed. Director Langa wittily provided multiple costumes, Eric Wennlund designed lights, and Brian Borgstede designed sound.
Alpha’s The 39 Steps is a lot of fun, thanks to the careful, inventive, witty, hard work that went into the production.