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Sometimes a play complements the theater where it's staged so perfectly that it's hard to imagine it anywhere else. This struck me last fall when I saw the Tony Award–winning production of "War Horse" at New York City's Vivian Beaumont Theater. The vast openness of the Beaumont's thrust stage fit the sweep of the story so completely that it became an integral part of the play's impact.
On a smaller scale, the same is true of the Hale Center Theater Orem's current production of Patrick Barlow's clever farce, "The 39 Steps." The play has an improvised, just-being-invented quality that suits the Hale's intimate space, which always makes you feel as though you are seeing a play in someone's living room.
"The 39 Steps" relies on the audience seeing through its theatricality and collaborating to make it work, and this production expertly exploits that. Pieces of furniture carom down the aisles into the playing area like a runaway freight train, masked by blackouts, sound cues and music. In the London Palladium scene, Richard Hannay (Blake Barlow) and Anabella Schmidt (Kelly Hennessey) sit in the audience while the master of ceremonies (Jake Suazo) asks various audience members to supply the questions for Mr. Memory (Carter Thompson). The Foley Artist (Alex King) creates the sound effects in plain sight and coaches audience reactions with gusto and giant cue cards.
"The 39 Steps" is based on a 1935 Alfred Hitchcock film in which in typical Hitchcock fashion an unsuspecting man goes to the theater one night, inadvertently gets involved in a murder, and has to track down a spy network before the police track him down. About 40 characters are portrayed by just four actors, many times across gender lines.
Most of these quick character sketches come from the two actors known as the Clowns (Thompson and Suazo). One of the scenes has them changing hats to play several people on a railway platform a paper boy, conductor, constable and lady asking directions before reverting to their original roles of two traveling ladies' underwear salesmen.
Barlow's Hannay vacillates deftly between being suavely in command of the situation and having to adapt instantly to the frenzy that comes and goes around him. Aided by several different wigs, Hennessey plays the women he encounters. She is especially good as Anabella, stalking dramatically around the stage and barking commands in her German accent. Thompson and Suazo have the spontaneity of a vaudeville team looking frantically for a place to perform.
Director Christopher Layton Clark orchestrates the action at breakneck speed with a pervading sense of mischief and tongue-in-cheek references to other Hitchcock films. Watch for the Hitchcock cameo appearance, a standard in all of his films. Cody Swenson's instantly adaptable lighting efficiently bridges scenes and helps maintain the pace.
"The 39 Steps" is essentially whimsical nonsense, but this production's combination of style and silliness keeps it consistently entertaining. Its good-natured transparency guarantees that the audience will always be in on the joke.
'The 39 Steps'
Orem Hale Center Theater's playful production of "The 39 Steps" makes the audience collaborate in creating the fun.
When •Reviewed on Jan. 6; nightly except Sundays at 7:30 through Feb. 11, with matinees at 3 p.m. on Saturdays during January.
Where • Hale Center Theater Orem, 225 West 400 North, Orem
Tickets • $16 to $20, at 801-226-8600 or http://www.haletheater.org
Running time • One hour and 45 minutes, including an intermission.