Richmond audiences are in for a treat with “The 39 Steps,” currently playing at Hanover Tavern. This play delivers mystery and suspense with a side of Charlie Chaplin-esque comedy, all wrapped up in a thoroughly modern, German-expressionist aesthetic. Patrick Barlow’s stage adaptation pulls from both Hitchcock’s 1935 film of the same name and the 1915 John Buchan novel that inspired it, resulting in a show that is a reflection of its era in both content and style as well as a clever parody of Hitchcock tropes.
Richard Hannay is an almost stereotypical Hitchcock leading man, a little older-looking than he says he is and as prone to falling into sticky situations as he is to falling in love with every beautiful dame who crosses his path. After meeting a mysterious woman named Annabella Schmidt in a London music hall, Hannay finds himself tangled up in a conspiracy and accused of a murder he didn’t commit. In order to prove his innocence, he must unravel the conspiracy and expose a ring of spies known only as “The 39 Steps.” The script is rich with allusion to Hitchcock’s ouvre, including references to films such as “Vertigo,” “North by Northwest,” and “Rear Window.”
Director Nathaniel Shaw keeps things lively with energetic staging and good pacing throughout the show and the cast provides great performances. As Richard Hannay, newcomer Alec Beard strikes just the right balance between hard-boiled and comedic. Irene Kuykendall is excellent as The Woman, actually portraying many women in this production, all notably distinct. Paul S. Major and Audra Honaker bring humor and energy to each scene, portraying every other character in the story -- and there are a lot of them--as The Clowns.
Dialect coach Karen Kopryanski has done excellent work here, as characters speak in many different dialects and all feel consistent and believable. Ruth Hedberg’s costumes are fantastic. They’re visually interesting, period-appropriate, and integral to this production, as they help to distinguish characters and add to the comedy.
Terrie Powers’ scenic design lends an appropriately modernist look, reminiscent of 1930s film noir. Powers’ stylized paintings at either side of the stage and an industrial-looking arch frame each scene, an enjoyable minimalist approach sees actors holding up an empty frame to represent a window or bouncing on a trunk to represent a moving train. B.J. Wilkinson’s lighting design deepens the film noir aesthetic, creating sharp lines and angles, throwing long shadows across the stage.
True Hitchcock fans are sure to delight in this production, but it’s also a lot of fun for the uninitiated. This is high-energy, entertaining theater that knows it’s theater. It might just spark interest in one of Hitchcock’s more obscure early films.
Virginia Repertory Theatre’s “The 39 Steps” runs through March 29 at Hanover Tavern. Tickets cost $46. va-rep.org.