"The 39 Steps" is an interesting beast because it subverts expectations at every corner. Even those who have seen the 1935 film by Alfred Hitchcock or read the 1915 book by John Buchan will enjoy it quite a bit, but the stage adaptation also keeps its tongue planted firmly in cheek for the entire running time. It takes the spy thriller plot line and the confused and desperate characters adding to this extremely fun theatrical conceit to make the entire enterprise a bit more showy. Aside from the lead actor playing the central role, every other character in the play is performed by just three actors.
The play tells the tale of Richard Hannay, a somewhat ordinary man who gets sucked into a spy caper. Hannay is a wisecracking member of the idle rich who is bored one night and heads out for a night of theatre. As he watches a demonstration of the powers of recall of a man named "Mr. Memory," shots ring out in the theater and Hannay finds himself protecting a beautiful spy who convinces him to take her back to his place. She tells him of a plot she uncovered to steal extremely sensitive military secrets and mentions something called "The 39 Steps" without elaborating further. Later that night she bursts into Hannay's room clutching a map of Scotland, fatally stabbed, and implores him to flee.
What ensues is Hannay, who is now on the run from the law for the beautiful spy's death, following an ever narrowing trail of clues throughout London and Scotland, desperately hoping to clear his name while also unraveling the mystery of the 39 Steps. Every single person he meets on his adventure is played by the same three actors and they do a fantastic job making the show an obscenely fun ride.
The two men who play all the male roles (and several female ones) are called the Clowns in the script, due to their constant shifting of attitudes, emotions and faces.
Clown #1 is played by Bradley Rode and Clown #2 is played by Adrian Mikkelson and the amount of fun they're having is palpable. There are moments when they are playing multiple characters in the same scene, sometimes simultaneously, with a constant flurry of different accents, facial hair and hats to let the audience know who its watching. Although something like that could overwhelm the story in a lesser show, the script is smart enough to let the spy thriller aspects take a backseat to the bravura performances by the clowns.
Annie Tappouni plays all the female characters, of which there are significantly fewer, but more time is given over to them to allow them all to be fully realized women. Tappouni instills each character with not only different physicality, but with different spirits, allowing the roles to really come across as distinct, three-dimensional individuals.
Brian Johnson is wonderful as Richard Hannay, adding a slyly smirking bravado to the character that recalls an early David Niven. Johnson is having a blast with the role, but also understands Hannay, so the meta-narrative never gets in the way of him delivering a solid performance.
Pulling off a show of this complexity seems astonishingly difficult, but director Diane Turnbull looks to have everything well in hand. This, combined with Kelley Ryan's wonderful and prolific costume design, makes "The 39 Steps" an immersive theatrical experience designed specifically to wow the audience. Judging from the rehearsal, it most certainly will.
"The 39 Steps"
Friday, Jan. 22 to Saturday, Feb. 6.
7:30 p.m. Matinees at 2 p.m.
Cascades Theatrical Company
148 NW Greenwood Ave., Bend