Carv's Thinky Blog I'm an author with a focus on satirical science fiction.


The 39 Steps

Gentle Reader,

As you probably know, my wife and I returned four days ago from an eight-day vacation in Paris. I'd never been to Europe before; my wife had but dipped a mere toe into France. When people ask me how it was, my immediate answer is "Life-changing." That's the truth. My wife and I are slightly different people now: more Parisian, less certain and, as Anthony Bourdain used to say, "hungry for more." We're still processing everything we learned and how we feel about it. I'll have more to say about Paris later, of course, once our rush of reactions has slowed. In the meantime, it's my pleasure to offer the following (late) review of a show which opened while we were gone.

Renton Civic’s flying circus
Hitchcock’s 39 Steps, completely different
Christian Carvajal

If you’re a fan of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)—as by now most regular theatre patrons are—then The 39 Steps should hit right in your sweet spot.

I’ve never seen Hitchcock’s 1935 movie version of The Thirty-Nine Steps, a 1915 action novel by John Buchan, but I learn from Wikipedia that Patrick Barlow’s 2005 stage adaptation follows its plot to the letter. That surprised me, because Barlow spins Hitchcock’s thriller into a Pythonesque comedy by adding jokes and using four rangy actors to portray its entire international cast. In director John Munn’s production for Renton Civic Theatre, Bob DeDea plays Richard Hannay, a Canadian visiting London. Hannay attends a music hall performance by Mister Memory, a man famous for his ability to cram prodigious streams of data into his brain. Shots ring out; soon Hannay’s unfairly implicated in the stabbing of une femme fatale (Deya Ozburn). He goes on the lam, chasing a circle on a map toward a fateful Highland rendezvous and the nature of the story’s titular MacGuffin. There’s also a confusing action sequence involving strangers on, as one may fairly expect, a train.

DeDea plays Hannay with period-appropriate panache. Ozburn embodies the slinky femme fatale, a shy Scottish bride, and a no-nonsense Englishwoman. As for the show’s remaining performers, Bryan Bender and Eric Hartley, I admit I lost track. Each must’ve played upward of a dozen characters plus onstage sound effects, skipping through UK accents and costumes with deceptive ease. The script allows for bravura transitions, including a whirling dervish number that cycles through a handful of hats. I wonder in retrospect whether it might’ve been more fun had Ozburn or another female performer played some of those roles, but I don’t know the script well enough to say how that might’ve worked. In any case, Munn and his cast do an admirable job of demonstrating their breadth and fluidity of range while keeping the story as clear as possible, which at times isn’t very.

As with Shakespeare (Abridged), the jokes are inconsistent but often hilarious. The script slumps a bit in Act II but recovers in time for Bender to impress us with a Mister Memory act of his own. (I missed this along the way, but apparently he’s explaining the physics of an aircraft in stealth mode. Hmm. I always assumed it was fairy dust.) Curt Hetherington stage manages his own lighting cues, dissolving us from scene to scene effectively and even throwing in a rod-puppet tribute to North by Northwest.

I know from performing Shakespeare (Abridged) that shows like this can be both incredibly demanding and a joy to rehearse. The emphasis has to be on making sure the fun had by the actors translates to equal enjoyment for audience members. RCT’s 39 Steps manages that difficult feat with aplomb.

[Renton Civic Theatre, The 39 Steps, $15-$22, 7:30 p.m. Thurs., 8 p.m. Fri.-Sat. through Oct. 5, 507 S. 3rd St., Renton, 425.226.5529]

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  1. Yeah, ever since my life-changing trip to Egypt, Italy, France, and England when I was 16, I have always been an ardent advocate of international travel as a great way to “season” a person’s personality. I’ve been addicted to travel ever since. Amazing sights & experiences, amazing food, and a different (often more sedate and appreciative) outlook on life. Can’t wait to read about your further reflections.

  2. “More sedate and appreciative” is a great way of expressing the direction I’m leaning.

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