Adapted by: Patrick Barlow
Adapted from: The 39 Steps (novel, 1915) by John Buchan and The 39 Steps (film, 1935) by Alfred Hitchcock.
Company: Thin Air Theatre Company
Running Time: 1 hour, 45 minutes (includes 15 minute intermission).
Date of Performance: Tuesday, September 22, 2015.
The 39 Steps is a popular show in Colorado this season; I believe there are or have been at least three Colorado productions recently. It’s a show that I hadn’t seen before, but now that I have, I understand why it’s a popular script. It first opened in London in 2005, and just closed a few weeks ago after a nine year run (making it the 5th longest running show in West End history). It was nominated for 6 Tony Awards when it opened on Broadway in 2008, and won two (Best Lighting Design and Best Sound Design).
This is a fast paced comedy/parody of the 100 year old source material (John Buchan’s 1915 novel and Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film). It plays out as a melodrama, with nods to Hitchcock’s classics (“use the Rear Window,” “which way did he go? North by Northwest”). (Quotations are approximations.)
For those who have neither read Buchan’s novel nor seen Hitchcock’s film, the “39 Steps” is a veiled reference to a German spy network, although there is little explanation in the script. The clandestine operation accounts for a great deal of onstage mayhem, beginning with a murder in Richard Hannay’s (Chris Onken) apartment. The victim, Annabella Schmidt (Rebecca Myers) is splayed out on Hannay’s lap with a knife in her back. Thus begins Hannay’s flight and fight, as he is wanted for a murder he did not commit.
|Rebecca Myers (Annabella and others).|
Rebecca Myers’ demise early in the show is not the end of her story. She is reincarnated for several other characters, using an array of wigs and some exquisite costumes. Myers is surprisingly malleable, making each character she plays completely distinct from the others. With each costume change and new incarnation, she is the company chameleon.
There are roles for two clowns here, and both actors are well cast for the clowning. Levi Penley (Clown 1) is a strapping guy who often ends up in drag. Surprisingly, he is quite fetching as a woman. He adjusts quickly to his feminine roles, speaking in a softer, higher voice to make the illusion seem real. Penley cuts up as a clown must, getting some of the biggest laughs in the show.
Nick Madson is the other clown (Clown 2), and he is also an excellent choice for Director Ed Weathers. Madson is also adept at changing roles and costumes in a blink of an eye, moving seamlessly from one character to the next. Madson and Penley share the stage for one of the most hilarious moments in the show, as the pair chase Hannay through a train. When Hannay ducks out of the car and clings to the side of the train, Madson and Penley follow him. The pair puts on a fantastic pantomime of a high speed train chase while hanging on for dear life. For me, it was the high point in the entire show.
|Nick Madson (Clown 2 and others).|
Chris Onken has the central role as Hannay, and he has the luxury of playing a single character in a play where the other actors must portray multiple personalities. Still, the challenge for Onken is substantial. He’s onstage for the entire performance, evading the authorities at every turn. Onken has to navigate multiple crises, maximizing the dramatic tension each time. He gets shot, but survives due to a stroke of incredible luck. Onken manages to maximize audience empathy while pushing the limits of credibility.
|Chris Onken (Hannay).|
Ed Weather’s direction is imaginative and frenetic; the action is non-stop. He has a talented cast and he puts them through a crazy endurance test of costume and character changes. To his directing credit, they have responded admirably.
All of which is to say that The 39 Steps at the Butte Theatre is great fun. The characters are zany, the actors are lovable, and the script is full of surprises. If you’re not laughing, you may not have a pulse.
The 39 Steps might just be the vehicle to revive melodrama as a genre. It’s not just about a villain with a mustache tying the heroine to the train tracks. Melodrama evokes strong characters, strong emotions, and often a triumph of good over evil. Those are valuable qualities, but perhaps the best argument for reviving melodrama is its very high fun quotient. The 39 Steps is ample proof of the fun one can have at a melodrama.
Before closing my comments on The 39 Steps, I must mention the venue: The Butte Theatre, and formerly, the local Opera House. It opened as the Butte Concert and Beer Hall in 1896. Over the years, it has had several incarnations: the Butte Hall Dancing Academy, followed by The Watt Brothers Furniture Company, back to a theater, then into a skating rink, a secondhand store, a weapons cache (The Armory) and an auto garage.
Today it stands as a beautifully restored jewel of the high country, a state of the art theater with 185 seats and a resident theater company (Thin Air Theatre Company) since 2007. With hardwood floors, period furnishings, comfortable seats, and nearly a 120 year history, the theater is a very special venue.
If you haven’t had a chance to see a show at The Butte, check it out. It's well worth a trip to Cripple Creek. Take your slot machine or blackjack winnings for walk to 139 E. Bennett Avenue. It’s just steps from the casinos, but it’s a whole other world.
I hadn’t been to Cripple Creek for some years. I’m happy to say that I broke even on this trip, but that would be because I didn’t have time to sit down at a blackjack table. Next time.
Cripple Creek is approximately one hour from Colorado Springs, and about two hours from Denver. It's one of the reasons we live in Colorado. It's a historic mountain mining town, and a wonderful three season mountain drive. It's one of only three gaming towns in Colorado (the other two being Central City and Blackhawk), but it offers much more than slot machines. If you haven't been there lately, check out Thin Air Theatre Company and the Butte. You'll enjoy the show, and you might even take some extra cash home with you.
Free parking is available on surrounding streets and in various casino parking lots.
This show closes on September 26, 2015.
PHOTO CREDITS: Thin Air Theatre Company
PRE/POST SHOW DINING RECOMMENDATION:
There are numerous gambling and dining choices in Cripple Creek. Thin Air Theatre Company has generously provided a list of dining options on its web page. We stopped at McGill’s Pint & Platter. I don’t recommend it, as the food was below average.
Producers: Chris Armbrister & Mickey Burdick
Director: Ed Weathers
Set/Lighting Design: Mickey Burdick
Assistant Technical Director: JT Rider
Costume Design: Nancy Hankin
Stage Manager: Tom Mosher
Richard Hannay: Chris Onken
Annabella Schmidt: Rebecca Myers
Clown 1: Levi Penley
Clown 2: Nick Madson