Rep's staging of Hitchcock send-up The 39 Steps is a rollicking good time 

Without a Hitch

Without a Hitch

One of the marvelous things about Patrick Barlow's tongue-in-cheek stage adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 film The 39 Steps is its fidelity to the original plot. It's especially noteworthy since Barlow's treatment completely upends the spirit of a deadly serious espionage thriller and transforms it into rollicking comedy. Though Tennessee Repertory Theatre's new production showcases Barlow's ingenious sleight of hand with the script, just as noteworthy are four wildly energetic performances by a stellar cast under the direction of René Copeland.

Nate Eppler, in his Rep debut, is simply smashing as Richard Hannay, a classic Hitchcockian character: the lone man on the run, caught up in events beyond his control. With his life suddenly in turmoil — and with Gary Hoff's charming set pieces transporting us from London music hall to apartment to train to the Scottish countryside and back again — Hannay attempts to unravel the truth of a pre-World War II spy caper, foil the bad guy and woo a ravishing damsel. He does just that, in a manner of speaking, but his debonair approach leaves us none too worried about his fate, mainly because we're laughing most of the night away.

In yet another bravura performance featuring her gift for physical comedy, Martha Wilkinson portrays the ladies in Hannay's life, including the ill-fated Annabella Schmidt, who sets the adventure into motion — and whose German accent recalls Madeline Kahn's classic Lili Von Shtupp in the film Blazing Saddles. Wilkinson looks great in Trish Clark's period costumes, and effectively conveys the classic cinema style of the 1930s leading lady.

None of the comedy would come off so well, however, without the immense contributions of Peter Vann and Patrick Waller, who manage dozens of ancillary characterizations — salesmen, the milkman, a charwoman, porters, police, spies, farmers, politicians, etc. — and pull them off with constant vigor and wonderful bits of well-timed humor that include cross-dressing, pantomime and good old-fashioned slapstick (not to mention Waller's Sean Connery imitation).

In fact, with the sole exception of about a two-minute lag in Act 2, the entire enterprise is a slam-dunk success. Besides negotiating complex blocking and rapid-fire dialogue that must simultaneously advance the plot and evoke chuckles, Copeland's deft staging also pays gratifying tribute to Hitchcock. This comes in various ways, including occasional banks of fog, Paul Carrol Binkley's sound design (which interpolates some of composer Bernard Herrmann's familiar string motifs into the underscoring), a verbal nod to The Man Who Knew Too Much, plus clever silhouetted references to North by Northwest. And yes, the master himself puts in an "appearance," as he almost always did in his vastly entertaining flicks.

As homage, this 39 Steps is on the money. As theater, it's precise, sharply executed, often hilarious and always rewarding.

Rep seasonal greeting

At last weekend's opening night performance of 39 Steps, Rep marketing director Pat Patrick announced the company's lineup of productions for the 2011-2012 season.

The interesting and challenging play selection begins with All My Sons (Oct. 1-15). Actors Bridge Ensemble and Belmont University collaborated on a generally successful mounting of the Arthur Miller demi-classic in February 2010. Despite some datedness, the work is still powerful and features strong roles for both men and women. Next up is God of Carnage (Feb. 4-18), an award-winning 2009 comedy by France's Yasmina Reza, translated by Christopher Hampton. Reza, author of the Tony Award-winning Art (1994), proffers a provocative contemporary scenario in which two pairs of parents, one of whose child has hurt the other at a public park, meet to discuss the matter in a "civilized" manner. Following is author/actor Tracy Letts' Superior Donuts (March 17-31), a 2008 hit in Chicago that had a respectable but relatively brief New York run in 2009. The setting is a gentrifying North Side Windy City neighborhood, and the dramatis personae comprise nine distinctive, colorful characters. (Side note: Letts' Tony- and Pulitzer-winning play August: Osage County will be presented April 8-9 as part of the REPaloud series of staged readings.) The final play of the forthcoming season is the attention-getting if familiar musical Little Shop of Horrors (April 28-May 19).

Sandwiched in-between the main-stage selections are three holiday offerings, all beloved reruns. Former Nashville-based actor-director Matt Chiorini will return to perform David Sedaris' The Santaland Diaries (Nov. 19-Dec.3), and for a third consecutive year, the Rep will stage A Christmas Story (Dec. 8-23). On Dec. 11 and 12, Tennessee native David Alford will perform his Christmas Down Home, an evening of storytelling that includes his rendition of Truman Capote's "A Christmas Memory."



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