Review: The 39 Steps

Jessa Schinske and Wil Rogers in The 39 Steps                         Photo by Jared Blount

By Larry Laneer
August 8, 2021

Good news, theatergoers, Pollard Theatre Company is back in business. They’re putting on what some may think would be a crowd pleaser, but that is questionable.

Patrick Barlow adapted The 39 Steps for the stage from an unreadable novel by John Buchan and Alfred Hitchcock’s movie of the same title. The play’s spy thriller-murder mystery plot is hackneyed beyond all get out. The novel is worse, and the movie is about as bad. This stage version of The 39 Steps was created to display clever uses of props, quick costume changes, wordplay, and a wide variety of characters and accents.

The director Jared Blount has assembled an outstanding cast, each actor suited smartly to their role or roles. As the English fop Richard Hannay, Wil Rogers brings leading-man good looks and a studied aloofness to the character. His Hannay has sangfroid. Under extreme circumstances, he never cracks, although you think he comes close a couple of times. It’s nice to see the experienced and capable Rogers anchor this production.

Playing three female roles, Jessa Schinske almost commits grand larceny by making off with the show herself. Schinske has a distinctive voice, and here she employs it in a wide range of accents, timbres, and volumes. In an early scene, she plays Annabella Schmidt, a mysterious German caught up in a spy ring. When Schmidt asks Hannay if he wants to be “involved,” Schinske pronounces the “v” with the “w” sound: inwolved. (Some German speakers make this error. I have a friend from German-speaking Switzerland who pronounces “vegetables” as “wegtables.”) This wordplay must have come from Blount and Schinske; it’s not written that way in the script I consulted. This is the type of detail that marks an extraordinary performance.

David Fletcher-Hall and Kris Kuss play characters called Clown 1 and Clown 2, but really, they are actors, stagehands, and props movers. The play may appear to be written with leading and supporting roles but in fact, it has an ensemble cast. Fletcher-Hall and Kuss have the expert acting chops to pull off a wide range of characters and accents and impressive physical comedy. Some moments are brilliant, such as when Fletcher-Hall switches between playing a railroad porter and policemen in one scene.

The production relies heavily on recorded sound effects and music. You will recognize much of the music, which has been lifted from Hitchcock film scores.

The complete focus on spectacle is both the play’s strength and weakness. The stagecraft and stage business aren’t equaled by a storyline and characters that are no more than caricatures. In what is supposedly a comedy, the audience has much to admire in this show but little to laugh at out loud. Despite some excellent performances and mainly solid direction, the show is less than the sum of its parts. I’ve reviewed three productions of The 39 Steps (two by Pollard), and, alas, this surplus of schtick and lack of depth has been the same with all three.

Blount has replaced W. Jerome Stevenson as Pollard’s artistic director. He has already put some fresh programing ideas into place. As Pollard and other theater companies ease back into business, it’s a good time to rethink what theater companies are doing.

The 39 Steps adapted by Patrick Barlow from the novel by John Buchan and based on the Alfred Hitchcock motion picture
Pollard Theatre Company
8:00 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 2:00 p.m. Sundays, through August 22, and 8:00 p.m. Thursdays, August 19 and 26
Pollard Theatre
120 W. Harrison Ave., Guthrie

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