The 39 Steps is a wonderful early Hitchcock thriller, one of his ‘innocent man on the run’ epics. The film simply crackles with tension as it draws you into the plot with a race against spies and a burgeoning romance. The Cardinal Stage Company’s performance at the Ivy Tech John Waldron Arts Center of Patrick Harlow’s adaptation for four actors crackles as well, but it’s with lots of hearty laughter.
Actor Chris Vettel, who played Professor Higgins in Cardinal’s My Fair Lady, is back to play another Englishman, the bored young engineer Richard Hannay. It’s a demanding role because even though he plays only one character, he’s on stage for the entire show.
New to area audiences is Nika Ericson. Ericson appears briefly as the enigmatically romantic German accented spy Annabella Schmidt who chooses Hannay to aid her, as Margaret the innocent Scots brogue spouting lass smitten by Hannay, and as the considerably more resistant upper crust English accented woman Pamela.
Rounding out the cast are Paul Hansen, who appeared in Cardinal’s Bill W. and Doctor Bob, and Cardinal veteran Mike Price. Between the two of them they play all the other fifty or so roles, male and female, in the show.
This comical account of The 39 Steps is still a complex thriller. Hansen and Price playing a conductor, a news boy, a policeman and a couple of other fellows at a rail way station switch hats, characters and accents so fast that I thought I was listening to a fugue. The staging of Richard Hannay’s flight from the moving train and the jump off the Forth Bridge is reenacted in a nail biting scene. It’s complete with dramatic sounds, flashing lights and an imagination satisfying effort with just a set of step ladders.
Other scenes are just for very satisfying laughs. Richard and Pamela’s attempt to get over a fence while handcuffed lead to one funny geometric gaff after another. I can’t imagine how they could remember all the pieces of that puzzle. And there’s a protracting scene between them that leads to the most comical kiss I’ve seen on stage.
Christ Vettel is quite perfect as the initially bored, and then energized, then terrified, then amused, then…well you get it. Nika Ericson does a lovely job as the mysterious German, the open Scot and the initially stiff Pamela with all the moves and accents in place. Paul Hansen and Mike Price, who play all the other parts, are listed as ‘clowns.’ That does describe some of the antics that the two of them get up to, but it doesn’t fully suggest just how successful they are with all of their various characters.
Patrick Harlow’s mad cap comic adaptation of The 39 Steps is a wonderful piece of theatre that succeeds in being a fine use of theatre that mightily entertains while being totally true to the original.