REVIEW BY CARY GINELL
What do you get when you combine Alfred Hitchcock with Monty Python? The 39 Steps, a riotous adaptation of Hitchcock’s memorable 1935 comic suspense film that features a cast of four actors and a minimum of everything else. The play made its debut last weekend at the OYES Theatre in Ojai and despite a shoestring budget, the creators manage to pull together the uproarious, fast-moving spy story into one of the more entertaining productions of the year.
The idea for doing the show had its inception in a hot tub, when three friends: Brittany Danyel, Hanna Mitchell, and Ezra Eels, decided to band together to put on their own production, calling themselves The 3 Masketeers. The story is classic Hitchcock: Bored Brit Richard Hannay gets the blame for the murder of a female spy and spends most of the play chasing the real killer while himself dodging the police, who still thinks he is the culprit. Aaron Gardner plays the tweedy, leather-elbowed Hannay while Danyel, Mitchell, and Eels comprise the rest of the cast. The four-person production of the play was adapted by Patrick Barlow in 2005 and lasted for 10 years in London’s West End, becoming a huge hit.
Danyel plays the three major female roles while Mitchell and Eels play everyone else, wherein falls most of the comedy. To do so, many different accents and costumes have to be employed and the two accomplish this with great hilarity. Danyel is terrific playing the straight roles of three victimized females that Hannay encounters during his sojourn and she and Gardner work splendidly together.
Hanna Mitchell is brilliant in her multitude of roles, both male and female, beginning with the key character of “Mr. Memory,” a music hall memory expert. As Hannay’s escapades take him into the Scottish countryside, Mitchell effortlessly transitions from Cockney to Scottish accents while furiously dashing off stage to change costumes and return in time for the next scene. Chase sequences, including an airborne dogfight, are effected using deliberately cheesy silhouetted figures and even rudimentary stick puppets, illuminated behind a lighted scrim.
Eels keeps pace with Mitchell, adding to his abilities a knack for physical comedy; his traditional stock-in-trade (much like Hitchcock’s famed cameo appearances in his films) is a one-handed cartwheel, which he executes at least once in every production, regardless of its relevance to his character or to the show.
The shuffling of characters is a tornado of activity, with Mitchell and Eels sometimes playing multiple characters in one scene, switching hats, expressions, and props so that they, in effect, are having conversations with themselves. Sometimes, costumes for the next scene can be seen underneath what they are wearing at the time, a deliberate way of winking at the audience to tell them that it’s OK to reveal the process, so long as the action keeps sprinting merrily along.
All this is accomplished with just a minimum of sets and props – the set pieces center around five steamer trunks, a chair, and two door jams. In one especially funny scene, Mitchell leads Gardner through a multi-room house, room by room, using one of the door jams, moving it each time Gardner walks through it to produce yet another doorway. In another, Gardner and Danyel escape through a window in a room, but use an empty window frame, which they hold and laboriously step in and out of to signify their getaway.
The result is a brilliant tribute to what can be done with a great script, no budget, four versatile actors, and a lot of imagination. The 39 Steps is a comic “tour de farce” that is not to be missed.
The 39 Steps plays through December 20 at the OYES (Ojai Youth Entertainers Studio) in Ojai. For dates and showtimes, see the VC On Stage Calendar.