Theater & Dance
Preview
"The 39 Steps"

By: Based on 1915 novel by John Buchan and 1935 film by Alfred Hitchcock. Adapted as a four-hander by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon, then rewritten by Patrick Barlow.
Produced by: Hillbarn Theatre
Featuring: Brad Satterwhite, Elspeth Noble, Russell Ward and Ross Neuenfeldt.
Directed by: Hunt Burdick
When: October 16 through November 2, 2014
Where: Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 East Hillsdale Boulevard, Foster City, California
Tickets: $23-$42. Call 650-349-6411, extension 2, or visit www.hillbarntheatre.org.

Watch Tracy Martin's video of a rehearsal of "The 39 Steps"

Brad, Elspeth
Mark & Tracy Photography / Hillbarn Theatre
Brad Satterwhite as Richard Hannay, left, and Elspeth Noble as Annabella Schmidt in "The 39 Steps" at Hillbarn Theatre in Foster City, California. The show runs October 16 through November 2, 2014.
'39 Steps' beyond total fun and hilarity at Hillbarn Theatre
A truly remarkable cast wrings every bit of humor from this laugh-filled thriller spoof
October 22, 2014

Go see "The 39 Steps" at Hillbarn Theatre to watch four excellent actors run and win a marathon race of hilarity, goofiness and nuttiness.

Brad Satterwhite, Elspeth Noble, Ross Neuenfeldt and Russell Ward are all enormously talented and absolutely great in their roles.

"The 39 Steps" started as a novel, then became an Alfred Hitchcock movie, then developed into this play, one that is way beyond silly.

It starts with the handsome, 37-year-old British adventurer and snob Richard Hannay sitting in his easy chair, thinking. For a long time. My theory is that Satterwhite, who is handsome, elegant and very funny in the role, waits until he hears someone muttering in the audience before he begins his monologue. On Saturday, that might have been me, when I turned to the person next to me in the front row and said, very quietly, "Are you having fun yet?"

But Satterwhite as Hannay does start, a soliloquy about how he is back from some adventure and wondering what to do next. All his friends are out having adventures, except for the one who was eaten by an alligator, and Hannay needs something to do. He's bored.

So, off to the theater, where he sees Mr. Memory — Neuenfeldt, in one of the lebenty-seben roles he plays — entertaining the audience by reciting facts about days long past, with the help of his assistant, played by Ward, who also handles lebenty-seben roles.

Bang! There's a shot, and some stuff happens, and Noble joins the scene as a vampy, sexy secret agent with a long cigarette holder.

She's wonderful.

Lots of fun stuff happens in this show, but it all gets better when Noble — an actual Great Briton — is in the action. She brings great charm to every moment she performs in the three speaking roles she carries. (She also handles two or three or more non-speaking bits, including one as the sky and clouds, carrying some model airplanes across the stage.)

The secret agent, while spending the night chastely in Hannay's flat, ends up with a knife in her back. Which eventually kills her, but not before a lot of gags happen. The physical comedy involving Hannay's easy chair is fabulous.

Before she croaks, she warns there is some vital bit of information about to leave the country, and somehow, something called the 39 steps is involved. Hannay — noble, heroic type that he is — rushes off to save the country. And, to avoid the coppers who are after him, because he is the chief suspect in the death of the woman found in his flat.

None of that matters.

What matters is the hilarity of watching this cast pretend to ride a train to Scotland, when really what they are sitting on are some steamer trunks. Everyone bounces at the same time; if a window opens, the actor opening it provides the shhhwish sound effect; when Hannay is escaping the coppers on the train he hangs from a rail on a very modest stage prop, as do the cops. When they run along the tops of the train cars, they throw their coat tails back as if they are being carried by the wind.

on the train
Mark & Tracy Photography / Hillbarn Theatre
Brad Satterwhite as Richard Hannay, background, gives the coppers the slip while Elspeth Noble as Pamela, and Ross Neuenfeldt and Russell Ward as officer, from left, peer through the train window in "The 39 Steps."

Hilarity. Cornball hilarity.

There are scenes involving Scottish rustics, innkeepers, police officers, sheep and other things. Neuenfeldt was hilarious as a sheep. Then, there are sneaky bad people in a mansion. Eventually, after a great deal of laughter, everything is sorted out. Of course.

The play carries a lot of pun references to Alfred Hitchcock movies, but I didn't notice most of them in this production, except for a scene that is sort of like Cary Grant getting chased by an airplane in "North by Northwest," and a portrait of Hitchcock sitting on a cop's desk, which later becomes an innkeeper's counter, also with the portrait. But I am guessing I just missed them.

The Hillbarn, very proud of having a proscenium and stage curtain this season, still seems to be struggling to figure out how best to use it. The pre-proscenium sets for "The Color Purple" and for "Spamalot!" were both wonderful things, when serious creativity was needed to make them work in the odd space of this auditorium.

But it was poorly used both in the fabulous production of "Funny Girl," and in this hilarious show.

Part of it may be a need for a better lighting rig behind the proscenium arch. It usually seems awfully dark back there when it maybe shouldn't be, and too well lit when maybe it should be blacked out. Early on in "The 39 Steps" I was put off by a scene in Hannay's apartment, when various set piece seem to be sort of piled up, with a sheet over them, behind his furniture.

It's likely that the Hillbarn will continue to evolve in its use of the proscenium and curtain. It's a good company that is working hard to get better. They're even building new bathrooms! And I must say, they have really been doing very well at casting plays.

Ward and Neuenfeldt are brilliant as the two clowns, sometimes switching character roles several times each in a scene, and always making it a lot of fun. The two of them are completely off the charts, pegging the humor dial and wowing us with the numbers of characters they play and how they make each of them work, quite solidly.

Maybe my favorite of their bits are when they play ancient, crook-backed Scottish political campaign workers, shuffling painfully across the stage to set up the podium and chairs for a speech. Ward, so bent he can't see over the top of the podium, has the job of introducing the guest speaker, and delivers a hilarious, almost completely unintelligible harangue in old-man Scottish brogue. Confused, he thinks the fugitive Hannay is the guest speaker, and when Hannay steps forward and — properly educated and sophisticated Brit that he is — gives a perfectly rousing speech.

But then he's on the run again, this time with the beautiful woman he met on the train, and the nuttiness continues.

Noble has her three very different speaking roles to create — the vampy spy, the horny farmwife and the beautiful lady on the train — and manages each of them with a considerable gift for comic delivery.

Satterwhite's Hannay is the base, the rock against which the others collide. And even as a stolid Brit, there are still lots of funny bits — many involving running in place — that he delivers with excellence.

Costumes by Mae Heagerty-Matos and make-up and wigs by Dee Morrissey are hugely important to this show, and very well done. Dressers Kate Schroeder and Maria Mendola must have eight hands each. Hats off to Kimily Conkle, the dialect coach.

Email John Orr at johnorr@regardingarts.com

Ward, Noble, Satterwhite
Mark & Tracy Photography / Hillbarn Theatre
Russell Ward as a suspicious farmer, background, catches Elspeth Noble as Margaret being perhaps too friendly to Brad Satterwhite as Richard Hannay in "The 39 Steps" at Hillbarn Theatre in Foster City, California. The show runs October 16 through November 2, 2014.
Noble, Satterwhite, Neuenfeldt
Mark & Tracy Photography / Hillbarn Theatre
Elspeth Noble as Margaret, left, and Brad Satterwhite as Richard Hannay hide their handcuffs from Ross Neuenfeldt as the innkeeper lady in "The 39 Steps."
stopped by sheep
Mark & Tracy Photography / Hillbarn Theatre
Elspeth Noble as Margaret, left, and Brad Satterwhite as Richard Hannay, in back, and Ross Neuenfeldt and Russell Ward as cops who aren't really cops in "The 39 Steps" at Hillbarn Theatre. The program informs us that no haddock, herring or sheep were harmed in the making of this production.


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