Part Monty Python, part Vaudeville shtick, with a touch of Mel Brooks, wrapped in a nice little Hitchcock thriller with twists and international flair and you have the very silly and quite well done The 39 Steps. But, that hardly does it justice. Honestly, the comedy in The 39 Steps is some of the hardest kind of comedy to pull off by any production team and the cast and crew at Hillbarn does a commendable job keeping it light, sharp and moving smoothly. Changing characters, a variety of accents, costumes, props, effects, timing…it’s all really an exceptionally fine art of its own just to keep track of who you are in any moment, staying present, while part of your brain is at least 2 steps ahead, preparing for the next quick change. This cast of 4 (and hidden crew) is truly amusing and professional, achieving high marks throughout and eliciting a full range of snorts to blurts when it comes to genuine laughs.
The fact that it does NOT take itself seriously, and the awareness it has of itself as a theatre piece, plays on an additional level of inside theatre jokes. The structure and performances easily allow the audience to relax and enjoy the over the top laughs as well as the slow chuckles hidden in the details, leaving “reality” at the door.
A clever use of the venue certainly gives the actors (and the designers) a workout, as well as keeping us engaged. Hillbarn is one of my favorite spaces when they FILL the space, and this show is perfect (and perfectly designed and directed) for such a deep, wide and truly 3 dimensional stage. There’s a great and probably maddening behind the scenes quality of this show that requires an enormous amount of locations, props, bits and pieces and at the same time benefits from a “minimalist” approach. Hillbarn’s production took this very seriously and I appreciated the choices throughout. The balance of big and small worked really well, accenting and playing to strengths and making light of (and by doing so adding additional humor to) any “weakness” that might have presented itself in the process.
From time to time some of the accents proved difficult to understand and knowing that the script is so packed with jokes, and I was probably missing some anyway, this bothered me a bit more than it might have otherwise. Some of the dialogue was of course intentionally meant to be unintelligible as part of the humor, but not all of my challenges were of an intentional nature, which did distract from that momentum that for the most part, really clipped along.
Due to some unexpected Princessly going-ons, I am sad I wasn’t able to get this review done earlier, but I will conclude with saying, this would be a lovely show to squeeze in today or tomorrow before it closes, well worth venturing out in the weather to take it in. 4 jewels out of 5 in the review tiara for a really silly, fun escape that serves of some very special performances and technical candy! The 39 Steps plays through November 2nd in Foster City.