The 39 Steps at The Guthrie Theater

Sarah Agnew, Robert O. Berdahl, Luverne Seifert and Jim Lichtscheidl in The Guthrie Theater production of The 39 Steps. Photo by Michal Daniel

In The 39 Steps (on the Guthrie‘s McGuire Stage, through December 19) everything is played for yuks.  Character transitions are made onstage, often with actors simply donning a new hat or coat (four performers divvy up every character in the story).  Set pieces spin in and out, trunks become trains, sheep on wheels enter (including a remotely operated baby), silly kilted cutouts operated by actors dancing a goofy two step serve as parade.  Jokes get made repeatedly (step = schtup, get it?).  Broad, over-the-top, mugging farce, in other words.

Putatively this is an adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock‘s serious minded 1935 film version of the John Buchan novel, the classic story of the amateur drawn into a viciously dangerous world of international intrigue.  But, really, this production pays lip-service only to the Buchan/Hitchcock source material and has more in common with Carol Burnet, Benny Hill and early Monty Python.

Your cup of tea?  If so, well, the Guthrie has the production for you.  Two of the area’s most versatile and creative actors, Jim Lichtscheidl and Luverne Seifert, play the “clowns” (as they are called in Patrick Barlow‘s adaptation of the film), switching from character to character with frenetic verve and downright indecent gusto.  They brilliantly mangle accents (Scottish, mostly) and, imo, enjoy cross-dressing a tad too much.  They will make you giggle and leave you breathless with admiration.

The always marvelous Sarah Agnew renders the story’s female characters with broad but detailed intelligence.  Her sinuously Germanic Annabelle Schmidt is a joy; ditto Margaret, the yearning Scottish housewife.  Agnew is wonderfully well-served by the wig designer (presumably the costumer, Amelia Cheever).

Robert O. Berdahl plays Richard Hannay, the bored gentleman who finds himself drawn into the spicy intrigue.  Berdahl is the only actor who doesn’t double and he refuses to let the scenery chewing Seifert and Lichtscheidl get the best of him.  His charismatic Hannay truly animates the play.  Excellent.

Director Joel Sass keeps things moving nicely and never lets the design overpower the farce.  Sass can’t, apparently, say no, but then why should he?  He’s working with performers with impeccable instincts.  Many in the opening night crowd at the G enjoyed the play immensely.  But: if you like your theater with more meat on its bones, with a story taken seriously and real characters, then you should probably give The 39 Steps a miss.

If you want to see the cast at work, check out this YouTube video.

For more information about John Olive, check out his website.

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