IF YOU GO
What: Hitchcock thriller re-created as a four-person farce
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Wednesday & Sundays through Feb. 26
Where: 2267 1st Street, Fort Myers
Cost: $44 & $39; various specials available
Information: (239) 332-4488, floridarep.org
Something else: Free parking across the street; beware other events in downtown Fort Myers
Video: Watch the trailer for "The 39 Steps" at naplesnews.com
On the Web: More theater news in the Stage Door blog at naplesnews.com/stage
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FORT MYERS — Florida Repertory Theatre debuted "The 39 Steps" - a farcical re-telling of the classic thriller using only four actors - to laughs, gasps and screams Friday night. You've never seen Alfred Hitchcock like this before.
Patrick Barlow adapted the show from the acclaimed 1935 thriller, which was itself based on John Buchan's 1915 adventure novel, "The Thirty-nine Steps." The show recreates Hitchcock's film (about a man on the run in search of a secret) in its entirety, playing the spy story for laughs and introducing dozens (if not hundreds) of comic touches.
This version of "The 39 Steps" is a co-production between Florida Rep and the Orlando Shakespeare Theater. The show, with the same cast and creative team, played to positive reviews in Orlando during the fall.
Turning Hitchcock's noirish sensibilities on their side - with a cast of four - makes for an evening loaded with preposterous plots, silly sensibilities and accents enough to stock a Berlitz school. Director Jim Helsinger shepherds the production along with delicate finesse.
Spencer Plachy gets the hero's role, that of one Richard Hannay. He's a bored Brit with a nice jaw, posh voice and dashing wardrobe. Plachy copes with the constant surprises thrown at the character (his shock-and-awe face is great, as is his eye-roll) - but he's the straight man in the show, constantly upstaged by the comical goings-on around him.
Deanna Gibson, making her return to Florida Rep after roles in "Born Yesterday" and "Boeing-Boeing," vamps into Hannay's life as mysterious Annabella Schmidt, who never met a guttural consonant she didn't like. Gibson returns as farmer's wife Margaret (her briefest, but best scenes) and again as eventual heroine Pamela.
Plachy and Gibson share a spark of chemistry that gives their moments an electricity. After they're handcuffed together, there's a moment as she rolls down her stockings (with his hand still yoked to hers). Everyone in the theater with a pulse must have gotten an atavistic charge as his hand slowly crept down the naked thigh and caressed her ankle. Check your pacemakers.
The show truly belongs to Brad DePlanche and Brandon Roberts though, the two actors who swing through the more than 150 other roles. They play all manner of policemen, maids, Scottish farmers, innkeepers, salesmen, conductors and many more.
The pair goes through a plethora of costumes, wigs, hats, mustaches, bras (both of them - in several styles), even aprons and puppets. DePlanche makes the most of a silly housekeeper who discovers a body (complete with Munch-like scream) and a deeply disturbed Scottish farmer. His best character comes late in the show - a mumbling, inaudible political speaker whose wordless monologue brings some of the night's biggest laughs.
Wiry clown Roberts seems capable of morphing into any of a number of characters from a jolly milkman to a master German spy. He's got total command of his body - and he uses every inch of it to create mayhem, merriment or mystery as required. I loved the moment he flipped a tassel from his hat into Plachy's face.
One of the true pleasures of the night comes from anticipating just how the design team might accomplish transformation from one scene to the next - and the sights and sounds that come with it. A moment at a political hall becomes a car by expedient of an overturned podium and re-arranged chairs; the balky car only starts after the steering wheel gets pulled from the recesses of the podium. Beyond the visual treats, the show's sound design is consistently excellent - be it the flapping of a window shade or the rumbling of a train.
Hitchcock fans will love the classic chase on the Forth Rail Bridge, staged with steamer trunks and ladders - Hannay's watery landing accomplished with a puff of silvery glitter. A comical interlude with puppets recreates a race across the Scottish moors - complete with cameos from the Loch Ness monster and Hitchcock himself.
There's also a running gag with stagehands flinging furniture on wheels across the stage - even a knowing wink when Roberts (on purpose) propels himself too far. Look (and listen) for references to other Hitchcock films tucked into the script and staging, "Rear Window," "Dial 'M,'" "Rear Window," "North by Northwest" and more.
The gimmicks go a bit too far at times. Some scenes (like a bit involving passengers trading seats on the train) simply go on too long - and the script mistakes repetition of gags for clever writing in places. A desperate love affair with overwrought accents will either amuse or annoy, depending on your tolerance for that particular trick. The theatrical smoke that simulates fog may also bother patrons near the front of the theater; several people hacked their way through opening night.
Audiences will marvel at the lightning-fast quick-changes and the inventive staging. Jokes, gags, accents and costumes fly by - and the cast flings themselves into the roles with glee. Don't miss the chemistry between Gibson and Plachy and the too-funny slapstick sensibilities of DePlanche and Roberts.
I know the thirty-nine steps. I took them to Starbucks. E-mail me, email@example.com, find me on Twitter at @napleschris or read my Stage Door theater blog. You can also sign up to receive the Stage Door blog via email.