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On Stage

The 39 Steps

Of spies and silliness

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

My date and I had just taken our seats at the Mount Baker Theatre’s intimate Walton Theatre last Saturday night when a parade of older ladies proudly attired in various shades of purple clothing—and who were also adorned with sparkly red hats—filled almost an entire row nearby.

After my swain pointed out that I was also wearing purple, and suggested that perhaps I’d like to join them, I told him I wasn’t quite ready to sign up to be a lifetime member of their club, but that I’d keep a close eye on the women during the performance of the Winter Repertory production of The 39 Steps to see how they reacted to the comic whodunit.

A few of the colorful crew might have been around to see Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film of the same name when it first debuted on the big screen, but chances are good they’d since been apprised that the play they were about to see—which was adapted by Patrick Barlow from the novel by John Buchan—was an entirely different animal.

The basic plot of the stage adaptation hews closely to Hitchcock’s version: A bored Englishman in London, Richard Hannay, spends a night at the theater watching a man nicknamed “Mr. Memory” react to audience queries by spewing out a long list of facts he’s kept locked tight in his brain. Shots are fired, and not long afterward Hannay’s dealing with a frightened (and attractive) brunette with a guttural accent who informs him she’s a spy who’s being chased by assassins.

What follows involves murder, false accusations, an undercover trip to Scotland,  romantic entanglements, mistaken identities galore and, despite the serious subject matter at hand, heaping doses of humor.

Part of what makes this version of The 39 Steps less harrowing and more hilarious than Hitchcock’s version is that the plethora of characters are played by only four actors. While Hanna—brilliantly portrayed by Bellingham newcomer Christopher Cariker, with a spot-on accent, to boot—gets to stay in his own skin, his able sparring partner, Jennifer Ewing, must transform into a trio of romantic interests (spoiler alert: her first character is stabbed to death).

Chris Shea (Clown 1) and Gerald Browning (Clown 2) fill in for the rest of the more than 100 characters and inanimate objects that are depicted, and as far as I could tell, they didn’t drop the ball—or one of the many hats they wore—even once.

“I’ve never seen an actor portray a bog before,” my beau whispered to me during a scene that saw Hannay and his current love/hate interest escaping from a duo of assassins while slogging through a Scottish marsh. I’d similarly never seen actors portray airplanes, trees, pigeons and so many characters of varying accents and genders before.

Judging by the list of costumers and “wardrobe maintenance” crew mentioned in the program for The 39 Steps, it’s clear keeping the clowns clothed and propped wasn’t easy. But, like all successful productions, everyone involved made the transitions look seamless, and helped me believe in the myriad transformations—some of which only lasted a minute or two, but all of which elicited some sort of response from the audience.

I don’t think I went more than a minute or two without laughing during the entirety of the play, but I had nothing on the ladies in purple and red. They shrieked. They guffawed. They snorted and cackled and giggled uproariously through both acts, and then they laughed some more. Maybe it’s time to join their club, after all.

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