The 39 Steps is the most bizarre, farcical, and consequently refreshing show to be put on at McGill of late. Director Oscar Lecuyer kicks off Players’ 2016/17 season with his clown-driven stage adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock’s film by the same name.
The 39 Steps, which was adapted for the stage in 2005 by Patrick Barlow, follows Englishman Richard Hannay (Tom Phipps) after he becomes involved (as it is phrased in the show) with an international spy operation in pre-World War II Britain. His adventure includes entanglements with many women (each played by Jocelyn Weisman), one Professor Jordan, the amazing Mr. Memory, two bozo henchmen, Scottish innkeepers, and many, many others (all of whom are alternately played by Frédérique Blanchard and Ben Mayer-Goodman). Phipps is the only actor who commits to a single character for the full 90-minute runtime.
Four actors, a dozen characters, no fixed set—and therein lies exactly what is unique about The 39 Steps. In bringing his vision to life, Lecuyer utilizes clowning and physical theatre, devices that the actors execute beautifully. The show is physically demanding, to say the least, yet the energy at curtain call is equal to the energy when the lights first go up.
Blanchard and Mayer-Goodman deserve particular praise for their performances as Clown 1 and Clown 2. They embody multiple characters, each with every aspect of their physicality. The most entertaining aspect of the show is their on-the-spot character changes; the audience delights as they witness before their eyes Blanchard and Mayer-Goodman instantly transform in body and in voice. Watching Mayer-Goodman seamlessly evolve between a policeman, a train conductor, and a commuter in a 60-second period is both dizzying and delightful. The immense work put into differentiating and refining characters is masked by seamless transitions and never-faltering accents.
Although the accents at first seem amateurish (Phipps seems to be the only true Englishman in the cast), after the farcical tone of the show is set, the imperfect accents seem perfectly appropriate. That is because Lecuyer has thrust reality outside the theatre and left it in the hallways of SSMU—in fact, the experience begins in the Players’ Theatre lobby. The audience participates in the first scene (quite passively, so don’t be put off if you are a shy theatregoer), which helps to draw everyone into the world of the play. Following this introduction, the audience participation dwindles and the typical actor/audience distinction is resumed. If the show isn’t so otherwise engaging, you might lament the distancing of the audience from the characters as the story progresses.
That is not to say that the audience is not important after the characters stop engaging with them. Lecuyer’s bare bones stage requires the audience to imagine the setting. The story travels from London to the Scottish Highlands, two vastly different landscapes that the audience is meant to envisage. Players’ Theatre is a black box theatre, and thus the possibilities for imagined space are endless. However, there is always the risk of the space presenting as it truly is—a blank black stage. The 39 Steps manages to make the best out of the space; rolling Scottish hills, speeding trains, and superfluously grand mansions are made palpable to the audience through the black box. Lecuyer utilizes the entire space, to the point that audience members are twisting in their seats to watch the action. Lecuyer boasts a background in physical theatre, one that he showcases in the staging of The 39 Steps. Instead of direction, choreography would be a better term to describe his staging. The actors do more than just “act,” as their performances transgress the bounds of drama into mime, dance, and clown.
Theatregoers should not go to The 39 Steps expecting to be intellectually stimulated or cathartically moved. Lecuyer’s clowns are silly, flamboyant, and have no moral message to deliver. At the end of a long day, you can expect to let yourself go and rejoice in the silliness of the story and the impressiveness of the actors’ performances. It is not often that you leave the theatre feeling more energized than when you went in.
The 39 Steps runs from Oct 26 – 28 at 8pm in Players’ Theatre (3480 Rue McTavish). Tickets are $10 for adults, and $6 for students.