Encore Michigan

Brass Tacks succeeds with ‘The 39 Steps’ in Ann Arbor

Review April 21, 2018 David Kiley

ANN ARBOR—The 39 Steps is a terrific movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1935. It is such a classic scenario–the wrongly accused man on the run from the authorities–that Hitchcock repeated the plot in Saboteur, North By Northwest, Frenzy, The Lodger and The Wrong Man. The 39 Steps, as a movie, has been redone several other times, and The British Film Institute ranked Hitchcock’s original the fourth best British film of the 20th century.

In 1995, writers Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon wrote a staged comedic adaptation of the movie, and writer Patrick Barlow further adapted it in 2005.

The play, now performed by The Brass Tacks Ensemble here, is not an adaptation of the original story, a melodrama written in 1915 by John Buchan. It is rather a send-up of the Hitchcock film itself. By re-creating the film on stage, with a minimal set of six cubes and four actors playing up to 150 characters, changing roles with just a change of hat, shawl, etc., the show can’t help but be funny. The one character who stays constant throughout the play is the protagonist Richard Hannay (played by Daniel Bizer-Cox), the accused murderer on the run who is key to keeping British government secrets from leaving the country.

While I do believe this show stands up on its own, even if you have not seen the film, I also think it’s ten times as amusing if you have seen it.

Mr. Bizer-Cox plays a very good Hannay, with just enough channeling of John Cleese in Monty Python and Fawlty Towers to make the role solidly comedic. Dory Mead plays several women roles including the spy, Annabella Schmidt, who initially involves Hannay in her spy-world, as well as the lonely farm-wife who aids Hannay’s escape from the police. I have seen Ms. Mead several times in singing roles where she has been exceptional. This is the first time I have seen her in a straight play and comedy, and she proves her versatility throughout, changing roles and accents with ease and nailing the timing and spirit of the show.

Sometimes referred to as Clown 1 and Clown 2, these two actors (Isaac Ellis and Maegan Murphy) work extremely well together to play dozens of characters, from Scotland Yard officers, two spy/captors, two lingerie salesmen, and the prayer-book wielding farmer (Mr. Ellis). To do all the switching and pivoting throughout this two act play takes great comedic skill and some wind. Part of the humor, to me, was finding Mr. Ellis frequently reaching for breath after a couple of dizzying breakneck changes. Indeed, the essence of the comedy flare of this play is watching the three actors playing multiple roles and using their six wooden cubes to create a train car, a couch, a bed, a car and more.

The action of the story starts in London and moves North to Scotland, and then back to London. The pantomime skills of the actors come to light as three of them ride a train, ride in a car and Hannay is seen to escape a train compartment and cling to the girders of the Forth Bridge.

Brass Tacks is an up and coming company. Their current performance space is the CCC at 1600 Pauline Blvd. The building is a pre-school by day and a performance space, with stage, by night. The first show I saw Brass Tacks do after moving from community to professional status, did not even use stage lights and some of the kids toys were just pushed to the side. This production has engineered sound and stage lighting, and the toys were all put away. All is well in this play, and the intimate space is well utilized.

The minimal nature of the costumes and set may not seem like professional theater, but in fact this way of producing The 39 Steps stays true to the original stage treatment, which toured the United Kingdom, performing in community and pub stages. It was created to move easily place to place with the cubes and actors transported in a van.

If you have seen the movie, and are a fan, then check this play out. For an aficionado of the film like me, it is most enjoyable. I also believe the play, in general, and certainly this production, holds up as funny and entertaining even if you have not seen the Hitchcock classic.

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