There are few adventure stories as durable as The Prisoner of Zenda. Anthony Hope’s 1894 novel – the story of a well-meaning Englishman who looks exactly like a European king, and who poses as the king in order to prevent a coup by some dastardly rotters – has inspired at least six movies and countless imitations. Now Hedgerow Theatre has produced an original stage adaptation – and whaddaya know, it still holds up pretty darn well. But even if you don’t know the story, Hedgerow’s production may seem awfully familiar.
While Hope’s novel may technically be the inspiration for Hedgerow’s production, a more direct inspiration can be found in two shows Hedgerow has produced over the last few years: The 39 Steps and Bullshot Crummond. Both are small-cast productions of epic stories, with actors playing multiple roles; both spoof vintage thrillers familiar from their 1930s-era movie versions; and both are filled with outrageously silly jokes. (Alas, I missed both Hedgerow productions, though I have seen several productions of The 39 Steps.)
The Prisoner of Zenda hews closely to this formula. It’s been adapted and directed by Matt Tallman, who also stars. (He even wrote an original song.) Tallman directed Bullshot and starred in 39 Steps, and he’s crafted this show to suit his (and his cast’s) talents.
The lingering aroma of 39 Steps is a little too pungent at times, right down to the use of shadow puppets to take the place of action sequences. And the winking jokes are more corny than clever. (I found myself missing the Hitchcock puns from 39 Steps, which at least assumed the audience was erudite enough to recognize the old-movie references.)
But if it’s not as consistently hilarious as 39 Steps, it also has a heart that the previous show lacked. Tallman’s script for Zenda emphasizes a romance between the two lead characters, one which has a surprisingly vivid tenderness. And the hero has a humility and sincerity that set him apart from the deliberately cardboard protagonists you may be expecting.
At its core, though, this is another romp that makes you laugh, root for the good guys, and marvel at the cast’s versatility. There are five cast members this time (though an unnecessary sixth person turns up as a dance partner in a ballroom scene, for some strange reason). All play multiple roles.
Tallman, rugged and engaging, plays the King of Ruritania and his lookalike Rudolf; when the two characters appear in the same scene, one of them wears something to obscure his face (such as a towel draped over his head). Josh Portera, wearing a strap-on mustache, plays the King’s half-brother, who is out to claim the throne for himself. Anna Marie Sell plays a princess who falls for the impersonator; she also plays an evil plotter with a thick French accent. (A wig for one of these characters would make them easier to tell apart.)
They’re all good, but the most fun comes from watching Mark Swift, as Rudolf’s obsequious sidekick, and Allison Bloechl, who brings a snappy, sneering zest to the role of the villainous Hentzau (changed from a baron to a baroness this time around).
Jacqueline Holloway’s fight choreography is sensational, including several terrific swordfights. The show’s highlight is a vigorous struggle between Tallman and Bloechl that spills into the aisles (and seats) of the theatre.
Shaun Yates’ set design is mostly confined to an unadorned platform and staircase, leaving it to Sarah Mitchell’s fancy costumes and the cast’s wide-eyed wonder to suggest the opulence of Ruritania. The harsh blackouts of Jared Reed’s lighting add to the melodramatic texture. And Tallman’s fast-paced direction makes everything bounce along smoothly.
Watching The Prisoner of Zenda, you may get the feeling you’ve seen it all before – and you may be right, in more ways than one. But if it isn’t especially groundbreaking, it’s also raucous, winningly performed, surprisingly touching, and quite a bit of fun.
Running Time: One hour and 50 minutes, including an intermission.