Review: Marco Players dive into Hitchcock with silly 'The 39 Steps'

The cast of the Marco Players production of 'The 39 Steps.'

Denise Wauters Johnson / paradisewebfl.com

The cast of the Marco Players production of "The 39 Steps."

IF YOU GO

What: Hitchcock thriller re-imagined as a four-person farce

When: 8 p.m. Wed. - Sat.; 3 p.m. Sun. through Jan. 27

Where: 1055 N. Collier Blvd. Marco Island

Cost: $25 & $23

Information: Call 642-7270 or themarcoplayers.com

Something Else: The theater is located in the Marco Town Center Mall directly across from the Crazy Flamingo restaurant.

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— The Marco Players have built a reputation over the past few seasons as the scrappy little theater that could. The troupe attempts bold, ambitious projects that most folks wouldn't dare touch given the limited talent pool in community theater and the matchbox-sized stage in their storefront space at the Marco Town Center Mall.

Some of the results ("Come Blow Your Horn") have been outstanding. Some ("Twelve Angry Jurors"), if not professional quality, showed what can be achieved when a community theater dares to stretch itself. Others ("Seascape," "Plaza Suite," "Jake's Women") have been interesting experiments that offered a chance for the group to expose volunteers to the theater, offer new material to audiences and otherwise fulfill the functions of a healthy community theater.

The group's latest show, Patrick Barlow's "The 39 Steps," adapted from the Alfred Hitchcock thriller of the same name, falls somewhere between interesting effort and messy experiment. I applaud the Marco Players for tackling the show, but "The 39 Steps," with its intricate stagecraft, multiple quick changes and multi-use set, often poses challenges for even veteran actors and professional theaters. Florida Rep co-produced a version with the Orlando Shakespeare Theatre during the 2010-11 season.

As much goes on backstage and behind the scenes of "The 39 Steps" as happens in front of the audience. Barlow took the entirety of Hitchcock's film and reduced it to just four actors. Now played as slapstick comedy, one actor takes the role of hero Richard Hannay with an actress assuming the role of spy Annabella Schmidt and other major female parts. Two versatile comics play all the other roles - bobbies, farmers, innkeepers, train passengers, newsagents, villains, politicians, etc.

The set shifts countless times. Viewers see Hannay's London flat, the London Palladium, the Forth Rail Bridge (it is misspelled in the program), the moors of Scotland, a police sergeant's office, a cozy inn, a crofter's cottage and more. The show uses a fistful of wigs, hats, props, plates of fish (yes, really) and other sight gags to set the scene.

The real challenge of "The 39 Steps" lies in how the director, actors, designers and crew approach the show from the outset. Will they aim for functional, frantic, funny, frivolous or funky? With all the moving parts of the show, directors must take care not to lose sight of the silliness inherent a man in a kilt, a cheap wig and fake bosoms leaning hard on the "r" in "Welcome the McGarrrrrrrrrrigle Hotel."

"39 Steps" was never going to be an easy show for The Marco Players; I'm happy to report that what emerges is pleasant, silly and mostly fun to watch. Audiences will love the accents, the wigs, the Hitchcock shout-outs (find them all) and watching how the stage transforms time and again.

Four practically brand-new-to-the-greasepaint freshmen actors under the direction of Ann Megna tackle the show here.

Michael Sean Johnson makes his acting debut as Hannay. Johnson copes with the stage and Hannay's adventures quite well. He clearly likes the attention, especially the constant radio bulletins that describe Hannay as "attractive" and "even more attractive than before." He stops his fake jog across the stage to give a devilish leer at the audience. The Red Hat Ladies in attendance ate it up with a spoon.

Sarah Poston (full disclosure: Poston is a Naples Daily News employee) brings and array of accents to her trio of female roles. Her spy Annabella, with guttural consonants and slinky black dress, opens the play with a bang (literally - she's got a gun and isn't afraid to use it).

Poston and Johnson combine for the play's funniest scene. Hannay takes refuge in an isolated farmer's cottage in the Scottish moors. Hannay initially declines to stay the night - until he sees what he thinks is the farmer's curvy daughter. Only, she's not his daughter - she's his wife. Still, a love match is born over the herring - and the girl warns Hannay when the farmer calls the cops. "You must leave! Not that window! The 'Rear Window!"

Rich Nepon and Carlton LaVair Sizer seize the comic possibilities of the two shapeshifting roles, technically titled Clown 1 and Clown 2. They whip through voices, costumes, wigs and more. Nepon delights as the burly, puritanical farmer and a braying newsagent. Sizer makes for a outlandish party hostess with an overstuffed brassiere and an equally silly henchman trying to shoo sheep off the road.

The show's best bit of staging comes as cops Nepon and Sizer "arrest" Poston and Johnson. "Get the car" one barks. But there's no car. No matter. Sizer glares at the "prisoners," then juggles four metal folding chairs into place, twirling them around before thumping them to the floor. He slides over to the side and grabs a bit of wood that was a speaker's podium in the scene before, while Nepon deftly tosses him a steering wheel. Voila! An improvised car. Applause, applause, applause.

I do wish the rest of "The 39 Steps" had risen to that level of fun.

While the show is competently performed, especially for amateurs, there's often the feeling that the art of performing got lost in a bid to make the bits and pieces look as good as possible. I always stress that "less is more," and that might certainly have applied here.

Too often, it feels as if the show was more about the moving of set pieces than it was telling a ludicrous spy story. I wish the Marco Players had found a way to either simplify the show, or use more purely imaginative props (like the trumpet that was nothing more than toilet plunger). I think these may have made for a quicker, easier, faster show and added even more wild sight gags.

One of the silliest moments of the night was Poston dropping a hank of blue fabric (representing a puddle), then muttering something about her shoes being wet. It got a huge laugh because it was unexpected.

Still, "The 39 Steps" offers an entirely silly look at Hitchcock like you've never seen him before. Escape into the other theater and follow the adventures of dashing Richard Hannay as he runs through trains, races across moors and kisses women in a daring bid to save the world. Accents, sexy women and dastardly villains are free, but the peek-a-boo stockings in act two are extra!

Full Disclosure: Sarah Poston is a staff member of the Naples Daily News. She is the Showcase editor. She is not my direct supervisor, but she occasionally gives me assignments and edits my stories and reviews.

What's your favorite Hitchcock film? Email me, csilk@naplesnews.com. Email me, csilk@naplesnews.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.

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