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It’s “Monty Python” meets “The Man Who Knew Too Much” in Manley

by Scott Clark

In 1915, the novel The 39 Steps was published, written by British author John Buchan – the first of a series of five novels by Buchan to feature his stalwart hero, Richard Hannay. Buchan referred to the Hannay novels as “shockers” – unrelenting action stories in which the hero is placed into a continuous series of unbelievably outrageous situations – situations that strain the credulity of the reader – and yet the hero somehow manages to survive and come out on top.

Buchan’s story has been adapted into a radio production and four films, most famously the 1935 version, directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Peter Donat and Madeleine Carroll. This first film version – considered by film critics and fans to be the best of the adaptations – was one of Hitchcock’s first entries in the trope of “an innocent man on the run” – something he continued to perfect with Foreign Correspondent (1940), Saboteur (1942), To Catch a Thief (1955), The Wrong Man (1956), and North by Northwest (1959), not to mentioned episodes of his TV series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-1962).

Both the novel and the films, particularly Hitchcock’s version, are incredibly serious affairs, with the fate of the free world resting on the actions of our beleaguered hero and his reluctant sidekick.

For the stage play version of The 39 Steps, which is currently running at The Lofte Theatre in Manley, you have to imagine that serious storyline as if the Monty Python comedy troupe had somehow gotten permission to adapt it into a broad farce. Originally written for the stage in 1995 by Simon Corbie and Nobby Dimon, the play was later re-adapted from their version by Patrick Barlow for a 2005 production, which is the version most commonly seen on stages today, including this Born-in-a-Barn Players production.

The 39 Steps has a very complex plot, which is difficult to summarize without giving too much away. In a nutshell, Richard Hannay is a bored Englishman in the 1930s, seeking something to bring some pizzazz to his humdrum life. A night at the theater drops a sultry female spy into his lap, with warnings of a dangerous intelligence breach that could jeopardize England. When the exotic spy is murdered, Hannay must go on the run, to try to stop some “top secret information” from being sent out of the country, and to prove that he didn’t murder the woman he’d barely met. Along the way, there are chases aboard a moving train, traipses across the Scottish moors, mad German scientists, thrilling parties and treacherous deceit at a remote castle, a flock of sheep blocking a foggy Scottish country road, a bickering couple handcuffed and on the run, glasses of water being flung about, and gunplay at the London Palladium. All with a cast of dozens of characters.

But wait, you say, this still sounds like a serious, dramatic production! True…but then you have to realize that this huge cast of characters is portrayed by merely four actors – and those same actors are having to change set pieces before our very eyes to create over twenty different locations.

This cast was incredible. Michael Kruger plays Richard Hannay (and only Richard Hannay). Anne Pope very effectively plays all the larger female roles, notably spy Annabella Schmidt, and reluctant sidekick Pamela. And Dillon Kirby and Andrew Schell play every other character, both male and female, often having to switch between characters repeatedly in the same scene, using simple minor costume changes to reflect who they were at any given moment. There’s even one scene where one of the actors plays a character who has to throw another character, who he is also simultaneously playing, off-set – my mind is still reeling! I have nothing but admiration for all four of these castmates at how quickly they had to bounce back and forth. My wife and I were particularly impressed at the versatility of both Kirby and Schell throughout the entire play. I personally appreciated the pantomime elements of both of them playing various stereotypical female characters – this is where the feeling and style of Monty Python was most evident.

The set design was functionally impressive – everything was completely mobile, and could be rolled and slid back and forth to create new rooms and settings. There was an incredible…fluidity…to everything. Particularly noteworthy was the use of simple window frames to create a chase sequence aboard a non-existent moving train. The very mobile nature of all the set pieces became a point of humor, and doors and windows get moved around in mid-scene to create new ways of entering and exiting the space. And some of those mobile set pieces were particularly huge – including two rolling loge boxes for scenes set at the London Palladium. Everything keeps moving so rapidly, and is often so madcap, that when prop and set mishaps occurred in tonight’s opening performance, they almost felt like they were supposed to happen that way – including a handcuff getting stuck accidentally in a closing door!

This play breaks the fourth wall consistently – there are countless moments where the actors are playing with a broad “wink wink, nudge nudge” to us in the audience, either with minor asides or directly addressing us. And the shtick of dramatic pauses any time the play’s title – “The 39 Steps” – was said aloud, by any of the characters, became a frequent moment of hilarity. Accents are played up to the point of intentional incomprehensibility at times. The play is obviously a parody tribute of the Hitchcockian style, and the regular little musical motifs harkening to Hitchcock films and TV shows were terrific.

Lighting, props (those sandwiches!!), costume design, sound effects, and the use of audiovisual set pieces were all done remarkably well. I’ve never been to The Lofte Theatre before, and I was amazed at the massive size of their stage. This production made effective use of the majority of that space. The only two very minor complaints I would offer about this opening night performance were that occasionally the pacing seemed to lag unnecessarily, and there were moments where the audio pick-up from the actor’s microphones didn’t seem to be working properly, making it occasionally hard to catch all the rapid-fire dialogue. But the high-energy performances and tongue-in-cheek humor more than made up for tiny technical problems.

All in all, The 39 Steps is a marvelously entertaining production by a cast with great chemistry, who throw themselves into the mayhem whole-heartedly. This play should appeal to fans of the original, more serious fare, as well as to fans of broadly humorous farces. It’s definitely worth the drive from Lincoln out to the big red barn on the outskirts of Manley. I know it will be the first of many visits I’ll be making to The Lofte Theatre.

If you go: The Lofte Theatre is located at 15841 Manley Rd., in Manley, NE 68403 – about 40 minutes east of Lincoln. Remaining performance dates for The 39 Steps are October 13, 18, 19, 20, 24, 25, 26 and 27 – Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:00, Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Get your tickets online or by calling the box office at (402) 234-2553.

Scott Clark has worked in a variety of roles for the Lincoln City Libraries for nearly 40 years, where he regularly shares book, music and film reviews on their readers advisory website, BookGuide. He’s also reviewed books for the Lincoln Journal Star, and KFOR radio, and has shared his reviews of films and stage shows on his blog and Facebook feeds for many years. He’s a reader, writer, and sometimes actor, who loves to share his enthusiasms, in an effort to connect people with things they just might fall in love with!

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