By SUSAN MYRILL DOUGHERTY
For The Westfield Leader
WESTFIELD – Parody, when handled correctly, can be such fun. The Westfield Community Players’ final production of their season, The 39 Steps, which opened Saturday night, is not only fun but quite a challenge for the four actors who are required to play a multitude of roles. Adapted from a novel by John Buchan and a 1935 film by Alfred Hitchcock, with the original concept and production of the four-actor version of the story by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon, The 39 Steps really puts the actors through their creative paces.
The main character, Richard Hannay (the talented Timothy McGovern), a bored, weary-of-life bloke, unwittingly has his life spiced up by a chance encounter with a beautiful spy, Annabella Schmidt. Sherilyn James creatively plays the roles of three women: Annabella/Pamela/Margaret. When the spy is knifed in the back, that starts life on the run for Richard, who protests his innocence. But with his photograph plastered on the front page of the newspapers, though, he seems to be presumed guilty before he can give his side of the story and warn the world of a nefarious plot by spies. Two other actors play various supporting roles of villains and heroes. The skill of playing multiple roles takes monumental focus, a cool head, and a carefully ladened prop table (Jean Lioy) filled with items to let the audience see who each one is playing at that moment. Now this could be a recipe for disaster if the cast is not properly rehearsed or if a prop is out of place. (Think the Broadway comedy The Play That Goes Wrong.)
Never fear, for veteran Steve Lemenille, in the director’s chair, has it fully under control. Quick changes and lightning-fast dexterity cause the two marvelously-talented actors lovingly referred to as Clown No. 1 (Rachelle Mandik) and Clown No. 2 (Andrew Weinstein) to play multiple characters within split seconds. The 39 Steps is ostensibly a spy story but is played mainly for laughs. Alfred Hitchcock fans who may have seen his black-and-white film version of this play might recognize allusions to many of his other films, like “Rear Window,” “Psycho,” “Vertigo” and “North by Northwest.” It is all done very tongue-in-cheek, with a wink, wink here and there. This could get overly campy very quickly, but because of deftly-handled staging and great pacing, the desired result is perfect.
This madcap escape of Richard Hannay through England and Scotland requires that he and all the people he meets have accents. One heavy accent hilariously requires the use of a spouse as “translator” to painstakingly spell out what a Scottish innkeeper woman is saying. Bits of slapstick, tomfoolery and physical comedy keep the night light. On opening night, there was a wig mishap with a window frame that scalped Ms. James, but as a true professional, she extricated the speared blonde braided wig and made her exit head held high. Other interactions that were an extra-special delight included a Key Stone Cops-type skit where the clowns impersonated police detectives. Their bedroom scene with the handcuffed Richard and Margaret is cleverly done.
Loads of authentic sound effects by Jake Malhosky were a bit loud at times but helped flesh out the skits. Scottish plaids, a spot-on fur-piece accessory, and smart hats are all part of the brilliant costuming and wig design by Ed Bontempo that suggest the 1935s. The set design (Linda Correll and director Lemenille) takes a black-box format with a door on wheels that creatively lets the audience feel the characters approach the room on the outside, and then when it is reversed, go inside the room. Set pieces of chairs and tables are brought on by the characters as well as a proficient stage crew. Two ladders upstage act as an area for banners and posters as well as the staging area for our hero to climb outside the “train” to escape the police.
Never mind that no one exactly understands what The 39 Steps are other than a force for evil. Counteracting that dastardly evil is the fun of the evening watching talented actors do what they do best: entertain. Bravo to producer Peter Curley, director Lemenille, and the rest of the creative team for offering this little two-act gem for the season finale.
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