And I’m not just talking about the uber-physical antics of stuff like The Three Stooges (although I do miss that sort of thing). I’m talking about the type of physical comedy we’d get from the likes of Michael J. Fox, Tim Conway, Carol Burnett, Jim Carrey and John Ritter. There’s a particular energy to that sort of performance that is so delightful when done well.
Which is why it was such a pleasure to watch APEX Theatre take on the stage version of “The 39 Steps,” a veritable showcase for this style of humor and performance.
That it was such came as something of a surprise.
You see, I had seen “The 39 Steps” before, but only as Alfred Hitchcock’s hit film from 1935, a decidedly serious affair by comparison. The story remains the same, but it’s all played for laughs (many of them self-aware), and with a good portion of it coming from the sheer energy derived from watching the players bounce around the stage, instantly changing costumes mid-line or waving trenchcoats around to comically push the illusion they’re being blown by the wind.
In it, Richard Hannay (Chris Abraham) finds himself on the run from shadowy agents when an international spy (Allison Pharr) winds up dead in his apartment. Now falsely charged with murder and attempting to discover just who or what the mysterious 39 Steps are.
It’s solid spy story stuff and, as evidenced by Hitchcock’s classic, works perfectly well when framed in a serious context. But, for whatever reason, Patrick Barlow decided to adapt the story as a screwball comedy. We should all be grateful he did.
The adaptation takes plenty of jabs at the self-serious nature of spy stories, constantly breaking the fourth wall with a variety of gags, as well as numerous knowing, winking nods to Hitchcock’s other films, such as “Psycho” and “North by Northwest.”
Yes, that’s right, a play with a couple dozen characters and parts is populated by a mere four players. Abraham is the only actor to not play multiple parts throughout.
Pharr, once her femme fatale spy is murdered, plays two additional roles, but it’s Hannah Morris and James McLane who have perhaps the most difficult job of all as they (often literally) run around, donning hats and various other articles of clothing at a moment’s notice, often switching between them in the same scene.
It’s frantic, tiring stuff and both Morris and McLane do a tremendous job keeping pace with what’s going on while also helping to maintain the tone. No easy task when you’re worried enough with just trying to remember which hat you’re supposed to don next. They’re having a ball, and it shows.
As are Abraham and Pharr, though, as well. Pharr is clearly relishing the over-the-top nature of all three of her parts, particularly the two that require outrageous accents.
Meanwhile, Abraham’s part seems deceptively simple by contrast given that he only has the one part, but it’s no less demanding with just as much physicality, narration and exposition involved in his performance. I’d previously seen Morris, McLane and Pharr in other productions, but this was my first time seeing Abraham in a role other than producer, and he acquits himself quite well on the stage, it must be said.
All four manage to pull off a delicate balance of playing it straight while also never being overly serious yet still managing to not be unbearably cheeky when (literally) making winking nods with meta-styled humor.
Up to this point, APEX Theatre has made a point of producing and introducing a lot of material that is rather off the beaten path for what one might normally find in a community theater around Tyler and East Texas. This is decidedly broader than their last three major productions and also a statement that they aim to be a home for all audiences, not just those seeking things outside the mainstream.
The bottom line is that was quite entertaining and certainly worth everyone’s time and shows a great mark of confidence in the abilities of APEX Theatre to pull off a variety of productions.
“The 39 Steps” will continue its run at 7:30 tonight and Saturday at Liberty Hall in downtown Tyler. For additional information or to reserve tickets, visit www.liber tytyler.com.