The 39 Steps – Switchcock

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The 39 Steps, Photo Courtesy: The Collaborative

A REVIEW BY RIVER STYX

Anyone who likes Alfred Hitchcock, farce and stylishly produced theater will adore “The 39 Steps” at Fells Point Corner Theatre. From the clever staging and gorgeous lighting to the universally solid performances and impressive parade of costume changes, the FPCT-Collaborative Theatre co-production gets two thumbs up from this two-thumbed theater-goer.

A satire of the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock film of the same name, which is based on the 1915 adventure novel “The Thirty-Nine Steps” by John Buchan, “The 39 Steps” tells the entire story of the film with a cast of only four. Hero Richard Hannay (Grayson Owen) is on the run after being accused of murdering a mysterious woman (Ann Turiano) who shortly before her death confesses to our leading man she is a secret agent trying to thwart an espionage attempt by an organization of spies known as The 39 Steps. While fleeing London and then in the Scottish Highlands, Hannay encounters a buttoned-up Marilyn Monroe type (Turiano), the demure wife (Turiano) of a Scottish inn keeper (Holly Gibbs), a villainous “professor” (Steven Shriner) and about 87 more supporting characters (Gibbs, Shriner).

Owen, Turiano, Gibbs and Shriner are a dream team of actors, each relishing the foibles of their somewhat ridiculous characters. Owens embodies a sinewy Jimmy Stewart quality in his movements and voice as he embraces the stereotypical machismo of a silver screen leading man. His extremely close-talking scenes with Turiano as his three love interests are dead sexy, to quote another satirical Scot. The hotel scene when Turiano’s ingénue is handcuffed to Hannay but needs to take off her soaking wet stockings, forcing Hannay’s hands up her bare thighs, is particularly hot. If you go with a date, make sure to drape a coat over your laps. Turiano is subtlely comic as she evokes Lady Gaga a la “American Horror Story: Hotel” as a secret agent and every Hitchcock blonde as the ingénue. She is also charmingly naïve as a jealous Scots’ lusty wife. Gibbs and Shriner put in athletic performances as the rest of the characters – gregarious traveling salesmen, bumbling constables, sideshow performers, and more. The two are talented comics. Shriner’s intense, yet reeled in delivery is a nice contrast to Gibbs’ enthusiastic physicality. They are a great pair.

“The 39 Steps” is further elevated by an exceptional production team led by Director Anthony Lane Hinkle and Technical Director/Lighting Designer Kel Millionie. The delightfully clever staging makes even the scene changes interesting. A bridge chase, plane chase and train chase all have movement and urgency with ingenious choreography that incorporates stylish props and set pieces. Hinkle also contributes a minimal, but polished set design and a dizzyingly impressive array of costumes. Turiano’s open back black dress will make you wish you had reason to attend the Oscars (in the alternate reality where non-white artists are also honored). Sound Designer Brian M. Kehoe tastefully dashes throughout the play instrumental music inspired by (swiped from?) Hitchcock films, and Millionie sets moody, lush scenes with his lighting design.

While every production element is exceptionally good in “The 39 Steps,” the pacing does drag in a few places and some schticks go on two too-many times. You should also be in the mood for satire and prepared for the nods to Hitchcock. At times I felt like a bad “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader” contestant thrown into a “Jeopardy” Tournament of Champions, especially because the vocally appreciative dude directly behind me had clearly watched the entirety of the Hitchcock Criterion Collection multiple times. That guy won audience member of the night. Whenever he laughed, I mentally flipped through my Hitchcock knowledge to see if I could join the party – is that a “Psycho” reference? “The Birds”? Oh, it’s that plane chase scene they play in film montages! Insider status achieved. On to enjoying the bagpiper dolls without ever having seen a Hitchcock film. (The bagpiper puppets are awesome.)

Bottom line: “The 39 Steps” is a stylish, polished satire that will inspire you to Netflix and chill with Hitchcock through the blizzard, and then go back to see this worthwhile production for a second time before it closes Feb. 14.

The 39 Steps, presented by Fells Point Corner Theatre and The Collaborative Theatre
Performances through Feb. 14 at FPCT, 251 S. Ann St. Baltimore

Contact Styx at:  riverstyxemail@gmail.com.

Styx Disclaimer: As a newbie to the area, I am not an expert on Baltimore theater, but I have strong opinions about artistic endeavors – especially community theater productions. Generally, I’m a big fan of people, and I know some of the artists I review. I root for everyone and am thrilled when people create thoughtful, compelling productions. I also think if you’re going to do anything, you should do your best, so I’m honest when something doesn’t work. I think it’s awesome you spend your free time creating performance art, and I offer my thoughtful commentary in honor of that dedication.

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