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Hilberry scores a laugh-fest with “The 39 Steps”

Review April 11, 2015 David Kiley

Hilberry - 39 StepsArticle: 9567; Posted: April 11, 2015 at 12:00 p.m.

It isn’t often a reviewer gets to say “I laughed ’til I cried,” but that is exactly what happened at The Hilberry Theatre Company’s production of The 39 Steps. At one point, I almost had to leave my seat. But since I wasn’t alone in my break-down, it was all right.

This is the third time I have seen this farce produced, and I always wonder what percentage of the audience has seen Alfred Hitchcock’s “The 39 Steps” film from the 1930s. The staging of the film’s story in British-farce style is extremely funny for anyone, but it is downright hilarious for anyone who is a fan of the Hitchcock film catalog and has seen “Steps” multiple times.

The play rolls out as if a drama teacher told a group of talented improv actors who had seen the film twenty or so times to stage the film using whatever happened to be in the costume and prop rooms.

The story, written as a novel more than a 100 years ago, focuses on a man, Richard Hannay (Michael Manocchio) who is singled out by a female mercenary spy (Bevin Bell-Hall) to shield her from enemies of Britain trying to smuggle critical information about a new aeronautics engine out of the country to the Germans. [The novel was written during WW1, and was updated to the mid 1930s run-up to WW2 by Hitchcock]. She is killed in Hannay’s London apartment, sending the hero, who is falsely believed to be the killer, on a British Isles scamper from London to the Scottish moors and back looking for the real murderer–the traitor selling out Britain who has part of one pinky missing.

The film has many comedic moments–some unintentional and just due to over-acting. The stage adaptation, created by Patrick Barlow in the 1990s, has been a mainstay of the London theater ever since and has had runs in the U.S. The stage players take the periodness of the film, the over-the-top derring-do nature of the story and the Scottish characters who come in and out, and turn it all into a laugh-fest of burlesque and over-playing the characters to hilarity in the best tradition of British farce stage comedy.

It is a seven-member cast. Manocchio plays Hannay throughout with great flair and comedic timing, with his Errol Flynn-cool comedic timing and dash, and athletic maneuvering around the stage–including using the backstage ladder and catwalk as the Forth Bridge in Scotland. Bell-Hall plays multiple roles with several costume changes–from the spy to the seemingly innocent, but really very randy, farmer’s wife to Hannay’s love interest and cohort in the story. She carries a big load in the show, and is marvelous and sexy at every turn.

It is Brandy Joe Plambeck and Michael Phillip Thomas, though, billed as “clowns” who keep the audience in stitches. They do a dizzying number of character and costume changes in rapid fire, sometimes doing a scene requiring four people as they duck behind a steamer trunk and slide on a coat or beard to each play two characters, other times as when Thomas wears a trench coat half-on/half-off and just keeps turning side to side as he does a conversation between two characters both played by him. Sometimes, the changes happen so fast, it seems like a Houdini trick. It looks like an exhausting show for the two of them, but they could soar with these roles on any stage in the world, and the Hilberry is lucky to get them for this run. They do some turns in drag, and bring such gaiety to it, with touches of improved bits of business, that you’ll be laughing and tearing up the next day just thinking about it. It helps that the two of them have faces seemingly created by nature to do sketch comedy.

Three “stage-hands” are part of the on-stage ensemble–played by Devri Chism, Julian David Colletta and Santino Craven–who portray a couch, chair, a car, doors, sound effects, etc. Their presence throughout, moving set pieces around and then performing, as they do–for example, forming a car with their bodies and the steamer trunks, and then transitioning to sheep blocking the road–is all part of the wondrous cleverness of the show and excellent direction by Russel Treyz and company.

“Steps” is part of a genre of farce theater that can be incredibly funny when done by such good actors; think “The Complete Works of Shakespeare—Abridged,” or “Potted Potter: The Unauthorized Harry Experience,” which hilariously acts out all the Harry Potter books in about an hour and forty minutes.

Judging by the roar of laughter in the crowd, enjoying “The 39 Steps” does not depend on seeing the movie. But if you can sneak in a viewing on Netflix before going to see it, you will multiply the laugh factor three-fold.

The 39 Steps
Hillberry Theatre Company
4743 Cass Avenue, Detroit
April 10-25; Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings at 8:00 p.m.; Wednesday and Saturday afternoons at 2:00 p.m.
Price: $10-$30
(313) 577-2972

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