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updated: 7/15/2012 3:57 PM

Brilliantly executed '39 Steps' worth a climb

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  • Man-on-the-run Richard Hannay (Peter Simon Hilton, second from right) surprises Pamela (Angela Ingersoll) with a kiss to avoid detection by the police (Jeff Dumas, left, and Paul Kalina) in David New's highly entertaining revival of "The 39 Steps" at Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace.

      Man-on-the-run Richard Hannay (Peter Simon Hilton, second from right) surprises Pamela (Angela Ingersoll) with a kiss to avoid detection by the police (Jeff Dumas, left, and Paul Kalina) in David New's highly entertaining revival of "The 39 Steps" at Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace.

  • Jeff Dumas, left, and Batavia native Paul Kalina -- a dynamic pair of physical performers -- play the clowns in Drury Lane Theatre's very funny revival of "The 39 Steps," a comic whodunit inspired by the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock film.

      Jeff Dumas, left, and Batavia native Paul Kalina -- a dynamic pair of physical performers -- play the clowns in Drury Lane Theatre's very funny revival of "The 39 Steps," a comic whodunit inspired by the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock film.

  • A gruff Scottish farmer (Paul Kalina, center) angrily watches while Londoner Richard Hannay (Peter Simon Hilton) romances the farmer's comely young wife (Angela Ingersoll) in Drury Lane Theatre's production of the comic whodunit "The 39 Steps."

      A gruff Scottish farmer (Paul Kalina, center) angrily watches while Londoner Richard Hannay (Peter Simon Hilton) romances the farmer's comely young wife (Angela Ingersoll) in Drury Lane Theatre's production of the comic whodunit "The 39 Steps."

 
 

The farcical whodunit "The 39 Steps" accomplishes something not many theatrical productions would even attempt. It adapts for the stage the groundbreaking cinematic devices pioneered by that great auteur Alfred Hitchcock. And it does so in a low-tech -- make that no-tech -- way that is nothing short of mesmerizing.

Ingeniously adapted by Patrick Barlow from John Buchan's 1915 novel and Hitchcock's 1935 film, this entertaining sendup is rooted in cinema. Yet, it exists as an homage to theater, a celebration of the magic that unfolds live onstage in theaters everywhere, at Oak Brook's Drury Lane Theatre, where director David New's razor-sharp revival opened Wednesday.

Squint during the daring train escape and the subsequent, fog-shrouded foot chase across a narrow bridge, and you can almost imagine you're watching a Hitchcock film. Yet, every one of the effects -- from overcoats flapping in the wind, to a man tumbling from a bridge into the murky unknown -- is achieved with no special effects except for those which the cast physically conveys. It matters little that the effects are entirely contrived. They are brilliantly executed to thoroughly delightful effect by a lithe and enormously skilled quartet comprised of Jeff Dumas, Paul Kalina, Peter Simon Hilton and Angela Ingersoll.

Except for Hilton, the actors play multiple roles, with Dumas and Batavia native Kalina taking on dozens of characters requiring lickety-split costume and accent changes that never fail to impress. Factor in New's consummate staging with its cheeky, Monty Pythonesque nudge-and-wink, an array of shtick and sight gags along with amusing references to Hitchcock and his films "Rear Window," "North by Northwest" and "The Birds," and you have an unbeatable summer diversion -- one I'll wager could hold its own against a Hitchcock double-bill at the drive-in.

The action unfolds on a quaintly elegant, West End theater designed by Kevin Depinet to showcase its decidedly dingy and definitely unglamorous backstage. It's here where New's nimble ensemble conjures Hitchcock using minimal props and bare-bones sets.

Set in 1935 England, with a significant detour to Scotland, the combination murder-mystery/espionage tale centers on lonely bachelor Richard Hannay, played by the attractively tweedy, charmingly droll Hilton, whose performance suggests a kind of despair teasing this isolated individual who's never so alive as when he's running for his life. Richard's desire for a mindless, trivial and utterly pointless distraction leads him to the theater where he meets a mysterious woman (Ingersoll), who then accompanies him home. As it happens, she has information vital to Britain's national security. But before she can deliver it, she winds up dead in Richard's apartment, leading police to name Richard as their prime suspect and prompting him to flee by train to Scotland.

On the way, he meets one of Hitchcock's cool blondes, also played by Ingersoll, who takes on Richard's multiple love interests, including a sexy spy and the comely wife of a Scottish farmer. He also encounters assorted constables and politicians, traveling salesmen and innkeepers, spies and society matrons, all of them deftly played by the dynamic duo of Dumas and Kalina (a former member of the physical theater company 500 Clown), who do much of the play's heavy lifting. Literally. These guys haul around more props and set pieces than a stagehand crew.

To reveal more would spoil what is a pristinely timed and altogether brilliantly executed show that manages to create and sustain a filmic illusion while it celebrates the magic of theater.

Kudos, all around.

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