Fast-paced, Hitchcock-inspired play elicits uproarious laughs

Robert O. Berdahl, Luverne Seifert, Jim Lichtsheidl and Sarah Agnew in "Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps." (Photo by Michael Daniel, courtesy of Arizona Theatre Company)

With the eponymous Alfred Hitchcock masterpiece as the inspiration, The Arizona Theatre Company presents Tony-winning Broadway comedy “The 39 Steps.”  Directed by Joel Sass and performed by a cast of four that seems like one hundred, the musical stands out for using minimal materials for maximum impact.

Filled with mysterious characters and flirtatious encounters, “Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps” tells the story of Richard Hannay, played by Robert O. Berdahl, a curious gentleman fully cognizant of his wit and charm, yet too distracted to be considered suave.

Intending for a frivolous evening at the theater, Hannay ends the night with a murdered woman draped over his lap. In an attempt to escape recognition and to also solve the mysterious death, Hannay risks his life in a dangerous train getaway, a venture to the moors of Scotland and a standoff with the leader of a cryptic espionage organization.

With touches of intentional production mistakes (forgotten props, extended sound bits) the story is humorously aware of itself as a play.

The musical also requires lightning-fast character changes and for the actors to occasionally play multiple characters at once, totaling about 150 by the end. The two clowns, Jim Lichtsheidl and Luverne Seifert, shift identities just barely fast enough for the audience to keep up.

The skillful coordination of the actors appears effortless, making it easy to get swept up with the precise and confident performances.

For the amount of scene changes that occur in the script, the actual set is relatively subtle and Spartan — yet very effective. Most of the scenery is conveyed through dialogue or props haphazardly tossed onto the stage. Though it appears rushed, there is still meticulous attention given to placement and structure.

Sarah Agnew, who plays German spy Annabella Schmidt, Scottish farm girl Margaret and strong-willed Pamela, was drawn to the roles because of her affinity for physical productions and the nature of the material.

Agnew explained that the greatest challenge was finding the rhythm of the piece and making it run smoothly.

“It’s a careful dance with everyone involved in the production, not only onstage, but offstage,” she said. “It’s a real collaboration.”

The lithe actress hopes that audiences appreciate the artful way in which the production is put together.

“It’s fun that the audience has to engage their own imagination,” she said. “It’s a pleasure. I hope the audience leaves with a big grin on their face. And with sore-bellies.”

The distinctive format and storytelling is hard to see anywhere else in theater. The tickets are priced $33-$64, and student tickets are available for $10. The unique production runs until Feb. 26.

 

Reach the reporter at mgrichar@asu.edu

 

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