Alfred Hitchcock's 'The 39 Steps'

Who are The 39 Steps? Who killed Annabella Schmidt? Why does this inn only have one kind of sandwich? How does Richard Hannay keep himself so fit? All questions answered in the cunning and comical play “Alfred Hitchcock’s: The 39 Steps.”

The scene opens: England, the year of our Lord 1935. The unassuming yet disarmingly handsome Richard Hannay finds himself desperately swept with boredom on a day’s somber night. The solution, he posits, a night at the theater. Lights, spectacle, Mr. Memory, a woman in black.

The gun wielding seductress cries for respite. Despite the precarious circumstances, our charming Lothario and his ever more devilishly handsome pencil mustache agrees to shelter the thickly accented siren.

Between swoons and dainty sips of fine brandy, she reveals that her story of intrigue may soon come to a sharp and sudden end. Sleep. Hannay is awoken by the pattering steps and gentle coo of the seductress in the final throws of agony. Death.

Now illegitimately branded with the scarlet letter “M,” he must swiftly cast his statuesque silhouette into the night with eyes toward Scotland in order to clear his name and shed light on the shadowy 39 Steps.

Opening to an eager audience on June 1 and running until June 9, “Steps,” brings this story of seduction, intrigue, murder and sandwiches to Eastern Michigan University’s Sponberg Theater. This time around, EMU’s theater department continues their streak of hits with the latest off beat but perfectly on point comedy.

“Steps,” is based on the 1935 thriller film by Alfred Hitchcock, which was based on the 1915 adventure novel by Scottish author John Buchan. Although the source materials take a serious approach to Richard Hannay’s unfortunate yet thrilling circumstances, the play finds the humor in-between the spies, double agents, amputees and amazing feats of memory.

When the script calls for the approximately 150 characters in the play to be performed by only four actors, you better find the comedy somewhere.

In EMU’s Ken Stevens-directed production of “Steps,” Daniel Millhouse (“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”) plays the debonair Richard Hannay and Victoria Morgan (“The Imaginary Invalid”) plays the lead role’s love interest Annabella Schmidt. Jahmeel Powers (“Friends, Freaks and Fakes”) and James Walrod (“The Imaginary Invalid”) take on the Olympic costume changes of Clown 2 and Clown 1, respectively.

Being a huge fan of comedic irony, lampooning and Hitchcock, “Steps” appeals to me in the most basic sense. The script is sharp and witty; the acting is superb.

Millhouse brings his trademark bright-eyed, down-to-earth and organic comedic style. Morgan, who failed to capture me in “Putnam,” delivers a believable and genuinely hilarious performance this time around. But it was Powers, who slayed me with his portrayal as Pete in “We Need Help: Episode 4,” and Walrod, who I enjoyed as Aargon in “Invalid,” who stole the show.

By stole the show, I of course refer to their outstanding performances as a combined 146 characters throughout the course of the two-act play.

Although billed as simply Clown 1 and Clown 2, Walrod and Powers spend the entire play swapping costumes, accents and mannerisms mid-scene. Although on paper this sounds like hellish overreaching, it was executed clearly, cleanly and cohesively.

There was a theatrical nature to the play with transitional chase scenes that included choreographed shadow puppetry. I really enjoyed these with an almost childish delight. It was funny almost to the point of cheesiness, without ever pushing into corny.

The format of the play was rather interesting with portions of the blocking taking place in the house and rafters. For his part, I have to applaud Millhouse for his respectable sprinting skills. There was a moment during a chase where he disappeared from the stage and reappeared in the rafters faster than some people could walk across the stage.

Although they never directly acknowledge the audience, there was an interesting wink and nudge with which the performances were played. It made me feel connected to the action without breaking the fourth-wall, which usually yanks me back to reality.

The four actors played double duty as stage hands moving set pieces as they flowed on and off stage, but it happened naturally and didn’t disturb the flow of the play.

Overall the play was snappy and hilarious. A great production of a great play; this is a definite must see.

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