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March 3rd, 2010 BEN WATERHOUSE | Performance
 

The 39 Steps (Portland Center Stage)

Is theater just film with dull bits put in?

     
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CALFAS AND NORBY
IMAGE: Owen Carey

In 1915, John Buchan published a novel about spies and cops chasing an innocent man around Scotland. In 1935, Alfred Hitchcock made that novel into a very odd film. In 2006, Patrick Barlow made that film into a comedic stage play. I expect a video game is next—possibly a first-person shooter. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The 39 Steps, the stage play, is at once a slavish adaptation of a movie, a love letter to a director and a celebration of theatricality. Its tiny cast (one actor plays the protagonist, Richard Hannay; one plays the unlucky women who stumble into his path; and the other two play everyone else) performs on a nearly bare stage behind a severe proscenium, each person moving bits and pieces of scenery themselves to set each scene. Hitchcock’s film contains an awful lot of scenes, so this makes for a lot of running about and swapping of hats, and is the source of most of the laughs. The scampering also allows for a lot of opportunities for visual allusions to the director’s other work, in ways that will delight his fans and annoy everyone else. But most of all the show is about reproducing more or less exactly a 70-year-old screenplay, and so it shares both the strengths and flaws of the film. It is often clever and sometimes exciting, but never quite as clever or as exciting as you would like it to be.

Portland Center Stage’s production, directed by Nancy Keystone (the creator of last season’s Apollo), is about as good as it can be. Leif Norby, who always looks like he just stepped out of a Frank Capra picture, makes an excellent straight man for the chaotic absurdity on stage, Christine Calfas ably outperforms all of the film actresses she imitates, and Darius Pierce and Ebbe Roe Smith, who collectively perform more than 100 characters, are hysterically funny and astonishingly energetic. It’s a wonder they don’t collapse well before curtain.

For all that, the show is both too loyal to its source material and not loyal enough. It climaxes, as the film does, long before it ends, and this is compounded by the addition of a trio of boring speeches that pad out the 90-minute screenplay to two hours. Had the playwright been more liberal in his cutting, The 39 Steps might become a classic comedy; as it stands, it is merely enjoyable entertainment.


SEE IT: Gerding Theater, 128 NW 11th Ave., 445-3700. 7:30 pm Tuesdays-Saturdays, 2 pm Sundays, noon Thursdays, alternating 2 pm Saturday and 7:30 pm Sunday matinees. No show March 12-13. Closes March 21. $20-$65.
 
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