For Rep Stage Co.’s The 39 Steps, disaster is never more than one step away. With only four actors re-enacting an entire vintage spy movie right before our eyes and assuming some 140 different speaking characters along the way, the peril is palpable.
But so is the pleasure when all goes as planned. Thankfully, director Joseph W. Ritsch and his crew both on stage and off prove sure-footed, even with their collective tongues held not-so-subtly in cheek.
Patrick Barlow’s well-received 2007 comedy manages to be as much homage to Hitchcock as goof-ball takedown of Sir Alfred before knighthood had fallen. It makes us laugh at the conventions of all those early movie plots while reminding us how much we loved them.
Mostly, though, this is a mash note to the magic of live theater. It turns luggage carts into train trestles and takes the steam from a locomotive and paints it into the boggy wasteland of a Highlands moor.
In that regard, this production is a triumph for the Rep Stage production team. Longtime Scenic Designer James Fouchard, Lighting Designer Conor Mulligan, and Sound Designer Sarah O’Halloran outdo themselves with every successive scene. They slip right into the mind-set of the play, exploring the comedy’s many delightful gaffes while exploiting the rich toolbox of modern stagecraft.
The play makes dozens of sly allusions to the whole Hitchcock legacy, and the production crew responds with everything from musical stingers from Psycho and Vertigo to visual gags involving birds, knives and even crop dusters. You don’t need a masters degree in film lore to catch them all. But if you’re even a casual movie-goer you should find enough “inside” jokes to make you chuckle again and again.
Robbie Gay as the play’s one central and unchanging character, Richard Hannay, heads an excellent comic ensemble. Robbie Gay fits the stiff-though-suave British action hero to a tea, setting the tone for what is to come with his dry, somewhat disaffected narration.
Soon he is pulled into an unstoppable espionage scheme to smuggle military secrets out of the country. (True to the 1915 John Buchan novel and the 1935 screenplay, the story unfolds in England at a time when the looming national threat had not yet been given a name.)
Kathryn Tkel is excellent as the intriguing femme fatale, later becoming the spunky heroine of the piece. She provides the necessary sexual frissons while coaxing savvy laughs out of each gooey genre confection.
Virtually all the other characters are presented here by the two-headed dynamo of Michael Wood and Noah Israel. Both performers offer a silly-putty pastiche of mime, mimicry and vaudeville skills that grow goofier as the evening proceeds.
Under Ritsch’s direction, Rep Stage has become one of Maryland’s most thoughtful and serious theater companies. So it’s good to see them just letting loose and having a jolly good time for once. The laughs come as blinding and explosive as a strobe light at times — so be prepared for dizziness and don’t let The 39 Steps lead off anywhere without you.
Running Time: About 120 minutes plus one intermission.
The 39 Steps plays at Rep Stage through May 19, 2019 in the Studio Theatre of the Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center at Howard Community College — 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, in Columbia, MD. For tickets go online.