Friday, March 1, 2013

"The 39 Steps" at Bay City Players filled with sight gags and spies

review and photos by janet i. martineau

Imagine a 1935 Alfred Hitchcock spy movie taken from a 1915  novel and  married to a 2005-penned Monty Python style  script and you have Patrick Barlow’s “The 39 Steps,” playing this weekend and next at the Bay City Players.

From left, Trevor Keyes, Kurt Miller, Nathan Cholger
And yes, the play directed by Leeds Bird is as crazy a caper as that sounds -- so many bits of business amid the mystery that it boggles the mind.

Also it is superbly directed and superbly acted by a cast of four with  seven Zanies backing them up -- and three members of that cast plays, oh, maybe 20-25 characters. Cops, spies, train conductors, newspaper sellers, a memory performer, a sheriff, hotel owners, aged politicians, a murder victim, a farm couple.

With varying Scot, British and German accents to boot (and some needing translation, which also is provided)

Farcical comedy is playing well this winter in mid-Michigan. Pit and Balcony Community Theatre in Saginaw had us laughing with “God of Carnage” and Saginaw Valley State University with “Moon Over Buffalo.” And now this delicious treat.

The plot concerns an unmarried Canadian man visiting England and attending a show at the famed Palladium. Quicker than quick he gets blamed for a murder following a shooting there, and the madness to track down the real killer while keeping ahead of the police ensues.

Bird has directed with a minimal set. Yet involved are cars, planes and trains, and escapes through windows, with the actors involved in not only dialogue but hilarious mime and/or movement connected to carrying them off. 
Two Zanies and a window escape

We do not want to spoil too much of that fun, but the airplane scene and one of the  window escape scenes left us in stitches. And if you know your Hitchcock films, they were even funnier.

Nathan Cholger plays the Canadian, Caitlin Berry three women he runs across, and Kurt Miller and Trevor Keyes everyone else. All are superb actors with a wonderful physicality, expressions, timing and line delivery. Truly, there are times we forget there are only four of them and think other actors have  joined them on stage.

Miller in particular is captivating -- in one place alternating two characters by just spinning around. He also has the most fun with the varying accents. But even straight man Cholger gets an outstanding sight gag early on when the murder victim has fallen across his lap in a chair with arms and he can’t lift her off so he .....well, never mind.

Earlier we mentioned the cast included seven Zanies backing up the cast. This was Bird’s addition to the show, and a brilliant one. Dressed in black, they are to explain it. Well, they are costume changers who usually do their work backstage but in this show do it in view of the audience, a herd of bleating sheep, the holders of the windows involved, the set piece changers. With body English of their own.

We can’t imagine this show without them and their ever presence, especially when it comes to the costume changes -- in particular when  Miller does that busy interchange of two characters with Keyes also engaged at that point.

Another Zany moment or two involves the use of a fog machine....with a Zany delivering the fog literally into the faces of the actors. Thought I would die laughing.

Other bits of fun business include one the actors doing battle with the sound man, and troubles getting a set piece  on in time for the lines. There are, in this play, many places where is the sound person has to be spot on -- and always is.

Great costumes also in this 1935-set play.

Like we said earlier, what a delicious treat -- for movie fans, Python fans and theater farce fans. The only problem is, methinks, there is so much to take in we are sure we missed things.

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