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Review: Rivertown stages The 39 Steps

The farcical mystery thriller runs through March 26

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The 39 Steps gives meaning to the term "wearing many hats," since a cast of four assumes dozens of roles, including traveling corset salesmen, spies, police, alluring women and railroad conductors. Playwright Patrick Barlow's revisionist adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 spy thriller is based on a novel by Scotsman John Buchan, penned during World War I, when German spies could have been hiding anywhere. Audiences won't find deep, philosophical meaning in this Tony award-winning play, directed by Ricky Graham at Rivertown Theaters for the Performing Arts, just a rollicking good time, as falsely accused murderer Richard Hannay (Marc Fouchi) gets into misadventures while being pursued by detectives in the Scottish highlands.

  The production combines high-spirited comedic acting, minimal staging and clever props and sight gags to elicit howls of laughter. Window and door frames are moved around the stage to provide convenient entrances and exits. Each time the door is opened, there's a swoosh of wind and skirts and jackets flap. Hannay is silhouetted in a shadow-puppet sequence, running full tilt, overcoat flying. To escape lawmen, Fouchi mimes hanging to the outside of a moving train and dangling from a trestle. Amazing quick costume changes by Gary Rucker and Mason Wood add to the hilarity.

  Old movie fans will quickly recognize typical Hitchcock characters, including innocent men on the run, mysterious foreign agents and icy, high-class blonde women. The filmmaker began his career during the silent movie era and the shtick is reminiscent of that period, with exaggerated movements and speech. Barlow peppered the script with references to other Hitchcock films and characters, including Psycho, which was filmed decades later.

  There's plenty in Hitchcock's original melodrama that can be amplified to the point of absurdity. Hannay keeps the show running as a dashing bachelor with "piercing eyes and pencil mustache." He meets the glamorous Annabella Schmidt (Jessie Terrebonne Thompson) at a theater and invites her to his London flat, where he offers her a snack of haddock. Despite the necessity for remaining incognito, Annabella reveals she is a spy followed by men who "will stop at nothing." Hanney dismisses her fears as "persecution mania," but before morning she is dead. Rather than call the police, he flees, borrowing a white coat from the milkman to get out the front door. Of course, the secret the men are after is the 39 Steps.

  In our 21st century world, the story's contrivances are antiquated. With GPS and Google at our fingertips, pulling out a map of Scotland to locate a villain is absurdly quaint. Hannay is so notorious, his manhunt photo appears on the front pages of regional newspapers, which everyone reads. Dressed in a tweed suit and smoking a pipe, he seeks work as a mechanic in the Scottish countryside. Women fall madly for Hannay, though that may not be strange, considering the woman is always the same actress in different disguises.

  The 39 Steps is silly fun that still stands the test of time.

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