02 September 2016

Actors Theatre of Louisville: "The 39 Steps"

Brown-Forman Presents The 39 Steps
adapted by Patrick Barlow
directed by Nathan Keepers
Featuring Carter Gill, Jesse J. Perez, David Ryan Smith, and Zuzanna Szadkowski
Scenic Designer - William Boles
Costume Designer - Alison Siple
Lighting Designer - D.M. Wood
Sound Designer - Stowe Nelson
Production Stage Manager - Paul Mills Holmes
Assistant Stage Manager - Jessica Kay Potter
Dramaturg - Jessica Reese

From the novel by John Buchan
From the movie of Alfred Hitchcock, licensed by ITV Global Entertainment Limited
And an original concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon

A week ago, I was running errands with my cousin downtown and we passed a window with a flier for The 39 Steps at Actors Theatre of Louisville.
Truth be told, I'm just not all that into Hitchcock's filmography overall, but The 39 Steps is one of the few films of his I've seen that I did thoroughly enjoy. I was immediately excited, and then immediately disappointed when I remembered that I'm too poor to go to theater productions.

Then a fortuitous thing happened. Tuesday night, I learned that a select group of tickets to opening night had been generously made available for free to members of the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance here in Louisville! I haven't written a whole lot about DBSA in this blog over the last year, but I've been going for a year now and have become a regular facilitator. It's been a tremendously important part of my mental health management, and I would encourage you, Dear Reader, to look into finding your nearest chapter in the event that you or someone you know might be dealing with these issues.

Helping me manage major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and PTSD is obviously the most important benefit of my participation, but getting to attend things like The 39 Steps is certainly a welcomed perk!

I knew going in that Patrick Barlow's adaptation had shifted the emphasis from the taut suspense of the Hitchcock film toward broader comedy. The very idea seems risky, but it works wonderfully. I have a low threshold for slapstick, but I was entertained and laughed for the duration of the performance. I'll confess that during the hotel sequence, I found my patience beginning to be tested, but once that ended and the story moved on, I was right back into it.

David Ryan Smith commands the stage throughout the production as Richard Hanay. Where his film counterpart Robert Donat is driven by escalating desperation to clear his name, Smith's Hanay is more a selfish man with ennui issues bothered by the inconvenience of the affair. It's the right choice, because Smith has to be the straight man in order for the comedy to work. If he's too intense, the comedy doesn't work. Smith's own comedic timing is impeccable. I was reminded several times of James Avery, Kelsey Grammer, and Orson Welles.

Supporting Smith are Carter Gill, Jesse J. Perez, and Zuzanna Szadkowski, all in multiple roles. Gill and Perez are central to why the comedy works. My friends and I agreed that had there been a larger cast, with each role played by a different actor, it wouldn't have been nearly as funny as it was to watch them flit about with dizzying costume and accent changes. Their performances on the train are truly magnificent, and how David Ryan Smith manages to not go all Jimmy Fallon and bust a gut being that close to them tossing hats back and forth to alternate characters, I don't know.

Zuzanna Szadkowski's phrasing and expressions are fantastic, but I also give her high marks for playing Annabella Smith, Margaret, and Pamela with wholly distinctive personalities. Where Gill and Perez are clearly swapping out hats and accents, the joke of all these characters being played by the same two actors is the real gag. Szadkowski, on the other hand, creates three entirely different roles. She vamps it up as Annabella Smith, taking innuendo as far as she can. As Margaret, she imbues the sheltered farmer's wife with believable curiosity. And as Pamela, she grounds Act III so that its payoffs have sufficient gravity.

I do have some nitpicks, though. For instance, there are some gags that rather lazily rely on one of the supporting men playing a feminine role, or as elderly people. The greatest offense, though, is that one of the put downs from Pamela to Richard is, "Now I see why you're an orphan!" That's simply, inexcusably awful. Putting someone down for being orphaned is appalling.

These moments are, thankfully, few and on the whole, I found The 39 Steps delightful. I want to thank Terri at DBSA for the work she did to secure these tickets, the people at Actors Theatre who provided them, anyone else involved in these arrangements I don't know, and I want to thank my guts for cooperating and letting me actually attend!

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