By Joanne Engelhardt, published July 12, 2017
Starting with the over-the-top, entertaining comedy “The 39 Steps” is such a charmingly satisfying way to welcome theatergoers back to Santa Cruz Shakespeare for its second season at The Grove in DeLaveaga Park.
Though the cast lists only four astoundingly talented actors (playing 150 roles plus-or-minus a few), there’s an even bigger “cast” for this production (which plays in repertoire with two upcoming Shakespearean productions through Sept. 3) because certainly the crackerjack sound effects, the prodigious costumes and wigs, and the wacky, quickly interchangeable set pieces deserve top billing as well.
Forget all the mystery and intrigue you might remember from the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock film and also much of John Buchan’s 1915 novel of the same name. Instead, be ready to enjoy playwright Patrick Barlow’s wonderfully wacky spy story played for broad laughs and a plethora of deliberately obvious references to Hitch’s most famous films: “Rear Window,” “Strangers on a Train,””North by Northwest, ”Vertigo” and more (oh, my!).
The marvelously smooth, dashing, riveting, blue-eyed Brian Smolin is flawless as the main character, Richard Hannay, and the equally marvelous— and beautiful — Grace Rao is superb in (almost) all of the female parts from German femme fatale Annabella Schmidt to a farmer’s sweet wife Margaret and the suspicious, smart Pamela.
But serious homage must be paid to the two actors innocuously listed in the program as Clown 1 and Clown 2. Santa Cruz Shakespeare artistic director Mike Ryan is Clown 1 and Allen Gilmore is Clown 2. They are both beyond belief as they barrel their way through character after character, changing clothes, accents, wigs, persona in split seconds — sometimes off stage, but frequently on stage as well.
These two rubber-faced comics are a tour de force even when there is nothing else going on — though there always is. Early in the play, after the mysterious Annabella goes to Hannay’s apartment with him, she looks out a window (Smolin’s run-in with the blind is hilarious, as are the spot-on sound effects when it keeps rolling up).
She insists there are two spies hanging out by a streetlight so he peaks through the blind to have a look. Each time he does, the clowns, now dressed as clock-and-dagger spies, have to haul a very large, very heavy-looking streetlamp out and nonchalantly stand under it smoking. As soon as he walks away, they drag the streetlamp back, but then he decides to take another peek — and out it comes again. A funny bit.
Actually, there are a whole lot of funny bits in this play, twisted up to the max by the deft direction of Paul Mullins and his first-rate crew. Wanna see four simple trucks look like the interior of a train car? No problem. Then watch those same trunks morph into the train car’s roof with actors jumping from car to car. Later, with the use of a little imagination (and smoke), the trunks become the girders of a bridge.
Of course, there are no girders and no bridge, but the actors easily convince the audience that’s what they’re seeing.
Though they have so many stellar moments, one of the best has to be when Ryan and Gilmore play the old Scottish married couple (in matching blue tartans, no less) who welcome the handcuffed Hannay and Pamela to their inn. They’re simply exquisite, whether pinching each other’s bottoms or doing their uproarious onstage changes from spies-to-Scots-to-spies-to-Scots-to….well, you get the idea.
This is such a thoroughly gleeful production in so many ways. Where else will you find two actors (Ryan and Gilmore, of course) donning World War I aviator goggles and airplane wings and buzzing up-and-down the aisles as they fly around? Later, Pamela opens an umbrella in the rain (naturally it has very menacing-looking “Birds” as decoration), and at one point Hannay drives onto the stage on a motorcycle — that is, the audience hears a motorcycle but sees him leap onstage wearing a helmet and gloves and holding the handlebars of a motorcycle.
These kinds of sight jokes abound thanks to props designer/master M Woods, and they’re amplified by probably the most authentic, on-the-money sound effects ever (courtesy of Steven Cahill). Jessica Carter’s wigs are mostly comical — in particular the “old man” beards and guises for, yes, Ryan and Gilmore playing bent-and-beleaguered old Scotsmen. It’s a classic (unscripted?) moment when Ryan, changing quickly from lady innkeeper to spy, drops his frizzy reddish wig on stage, grabs it and slings it on helter-skelter.
Kent Dorsey’s lighting serves magnificently — even when the onstage antics continue down the aisles, while Annie Smart and Justine Law’s scenic design — simple, versatile, highly moveable — is just the ticket for this show.
B. Modern must have had a field day creating an onslaught of comedic costumes. While all of Rao’s outfits are curvy, sexy and/or stylish and Smolin’s one suit and hat are oh-so-‘30s British, Ryan and Gilmore have at least 40 costumes each — sometimes just a sash, hat or shirt change, but others are entire outfits that have to be put on in 10 seconds — or less. Bravo!
Saturday’s opening night crowd could be heard laughing down the aisles and into the parking lot. What higher praise is there than that?