Oldcastle's "39 Steps" a side-splitting romp


BENNINGTON >> What more can you say about a play - especially a comedy - that the audience's chuckles and guffaws didn't already express, either in metaphor, or reality?

Such is the unenviable task for anyone trying to describe the fun romp - so intelligently snicker-producing – which is the opening play of Oldcastle Theatre Company's 45th season, "The 39 Steps." Oldcastle veteran actor Nathan Stith returns to a warm homecoming in his southwest Vermont directorial debut.

This play is a very energetic yet nuanced comedy driven by how its actors carry out the physicality inherent in playwright Patrick Barlow's 2005 adaptation of John Buchan's 1915 novel, and Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 movie.

The time: 1935. The place: various locales around Great Britain. Richard Hannay (Peter Langstaff) is a hapless, bored London gentleman with no friends and no love life. On a whim he goes to see a meaningless show on the West End, and meets Annabella Schmidt (Natalie Wilder), who seems to be a spy. His life is changed; what ensues is a madcap race against time that has Hannay in one misadventure after another, all for the sake of saving England.

Along the way he encounter dozens of people, and even a few inanimate objects. All are played by either Clown 1 (Patrick Ellison Shea) or Clown 2 (Jim Staudt). Wilder also portrays several others, including a love interest for Hannay, Margaret.

The cast, all longtime Oldcastle actors, derived great synergy from having worked with each other in the past.

Wilder was magnificent. While ever versatile and always game for a farce, one of Wilder's standout characteristics is that she can do sultry mixed with funny, and not make it feel like parody. Anyway you shake it, that's a priceless talent, whether when acting or in real life. Wilder smolders on stage and gets the laughs.

Langstaff is a longtime standard bearer for acting excellence. Year after year, does it really matter what role we assign him? Does it really matter with whom he is cast? Does it really matter what costume he wears? No! When Langstaff takes the stage, as he does with Hannay, all other Thespians should be taking notes.

In the 150 or so roles taken on by the two Clowns, it would be a disservice not to assess Shea and Staudt in the same breath. Each was the Ying to the other's Yang, and in the realm of physical comedy, these two actors as a team stand peerless.

Of particular brilliance in playing so many characters was how they choreographed and executed the seemingly every-15-seconds costume changes, shifts, modifications, and general pandemonium in changing who they were, what they were wearing, how they spoke, and importantly, how they moved on stage.

The latter merits mention on its own. Staudt is a human pretzel with a level of propulsion that puts a cruise missile to shame. He contorts himself into every shape and size imaginable just to cop a laugh, all while flinging himself to and fro – and he's very good at it. For his part, Shea might not be as young or limber, but his impeccable timing and extensive comic experience allows him to show the young buck a thing or two in almost every scene, as he delivered to goods with every character change.

It's clear Mr. Stith had his troupe ready to deal in these frenzied two hours, which included a 10-minute intermission.

Lights by David Groupe and sound by Cory Wheat were both well calculated and programmed. Rick Howe's set was austere, surreal, creative and perfect for this show's rapid demands.

The jigsaw puzzle costumes of Ursula McCarty were astutely thought through – personal favorites were the apparently endless pit of hats the Clowns had to wear and share. Finally, Gary Allan Poe should take a bow as stage manager for holding this insanity on time and on mark all evening.

Some plays are meant for fun, and this is one of them. If you want a better way to open a theatre season, you won't find it.

Still, it's early June. The crowds aren't quite out yet. But if you love the stage and love comedy and love excellent acting and directing, then beat feet to Bennington and Oldcastle, and prime yourself for entering the theatre of the absurd.

"The 39 Steps," by Patrick Barlow, runs through June 19 at Oldcastle Theatre Company, 331 Main St. in Bennington. For tickets and information call 802-447-0564 or visit www.oldcastletheatre.org

— Telly Halkias is an award-winning freelance journalist and a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA).


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