Tag Archives: The 39 Steps

I really stepped in it this time…

Sarah Agnew, Robert O. Berdahl and Luverne Seifert in "Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps" by Arizona Theatre Company (Photo: Tim Fuller/ATC)

I’m not sure what “it” was — but it did a little number on my right ankle that’s had me rocking a lovely black boot secured by icky Velcro straps for weeks.  Might have been that last trip to Mesa Arts Center, when something possessed me to haul out the high heels, and I came home feeling a bit like the wobbly-legged wonders pictured above.

I slowed my pace for a spell until graduating this week to a fabric brace and sneakers. Best I missed opening night in Phoenix for Arizona Theatre Company’s production of “Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps,” because their openings tend to attract a rather elegant bunch.

Sarah Agnew, Jim Lichtscheidl and Luverne Seifert in Arizona Theatre Company's "Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps" (Photo: Tim Fuller/ATC)

Instead I hobbled over just last night for my third encounter with the show. I first saw “Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps” performed at ASU Gammage by a national touring company. Next I enjoyed a production at the Utah Shakespeare Festival, where I sometimes take short getaways with my youngest daughter Lizabeth.

I’d be up to 117 steps now if the show had anything to do with actual steps — and probably in a full body cast. But thankfully, “39 Steps” actually refers to a clandestine organization of spies. Not something I’m likely to join since I’m sticking out like a sore foot these days.

Jim Lichtscheidl, Robert O. Berdahl and Liverne Seifert in Arizona Theatre Company's "Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps" (Photo: Tim Fuller/ATC)

Hitchcock directed a 1935 film titled “The 39 Steps,” which was loosely based on a 1915 John Buchan novel called “Thirty-Nine Steps.” After nearly 1oo years, the story is still going strong, though everyone who crafts a new film or stage version adds their own spin.

Staged adaptations typically included homages to assorted Hitchcock works. The Arizona Theatre Company production, an adaptation by Patrick Barlow, opens with the clacking sound of an old-time film projector after someone sounding like Hitchcock runs through the usual bit of theater etiquette.

Barlow’s adaptation, being performed at the Herberger Theater Center through Feb. 26, is a pastishe — an artistic work that cobbles together several earlier incarnations of a piece. It’s got elements of the novel, Hitchcock film and Broadway production — and it’s enormously clever (though a tad too cheesy at times).

The production features four actors performing more than 150 roles. Robert O. Berdahl plays Richard Hannay and Sarah Agnew plays the major female roles (Annabella, Pamela and Margaret). Actors Jim Lichtscheidl and Luverne Seifert, dubbed “the Clowns,” play every other role.

All excel in physical comedy and dialects, delivering the detail that’s key to farce feeling truly funny. It’s directed by Joel Sass, who stretches most scenes beyond the typical level of absurdity expected with such fare.

Sarah Agnew, Jim Lichtscheidl and Robert O. Berdahl in Arizona Theatre Company's "Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps" (Photo: Tim Fuller/ATC)

“Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps” begins as a mild mannered-man trying to enjoy an evening of theater meets a mysterious woman. Her tale is taller than most, and deadlier too. Soon Mr. Hannay finds himself ensnared in a web of intrigue spiraling out of control. You might say that he’s the one who really stepped in it.

The show is a perfect introduction to farce for folks who’ve yet to experience this particular genre of comedy. You don’t have to follow every little plot twist to enjoy it. But if that’s your vibe, you’ll be pleased to know that both Arizona Theatre Company and the Utah Shakespeare Festival offer online play guides for “Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps.”

Robert O. Berdahl in Arizona Theatre Company's "The 39 Steps" (Photo: Tim Fuller)

Those of use who’ve seen it several times find something new in each viewing. We catch more of the Hitchcock references. Appreciate differences in the ways best-loved scenes are handled. And relish each actor’s fresh take on the frolicking misadventures.

The friend I took along Sunday night loved the way various set pieces rolled in and out, including Highland pole dancers (not that sort of pole) and a bevy of sheep. Set design for this production is by Richard Hoover, who earned a 1999 Tony Award for scenic design — for his work on a production of Tennessee Williams’ “Not About Nightingales.”

Thoughtul music choices and sound design anchor this production in nostalgia, and the generous use of shadows adds a lovely element of surprise. Lighting design is by Barry Browning, sound design is by Reid Rejsa and shadow puppetry is by Michael Sommers.

There’s more sexual inuendo in this production than others I’ve seen — and more peaks and valleys in terms of pacing. Still, it’s a delightful romp.

Teens who love spy novels and thrillers may be intrigued to see a work based on earlier incarnations of the genre. Adults who adore “take me away” comedy will find plenty of on-stage foibles to distract from their own. No need to wear high heels when you go. Just enjoy the onstage danger from a distance, and let someone else step in it this time.

— Lynn

Note: The New York run of “Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps” ended on Jan. 16, but you can still click here to read their study guide.

Coming up: Local high school performs “Beauty & the Beast”


“The 39 Steps” is ‘LOL’ entertainment

As the house lights dimmed at ASU Gammage in Tempe last night, a single spot shown down upon a leather chair occupied by a chap who seemed an odd mix of self-loving and self-loathing.

He began by bemoaning his boredom, realizing soon enough that what he really felt was tragically tired. So he wondered—what to do in such a situation?

I’d been wondering the same thing myself just an hour or so before, when faced with the decision of whether or not to drag myself out for a night of theater after a day that left me feeling as though I’d been dragged behind a fast-moving truck.

The gentleman in the chair decided he needed to do something mindless, so naturally he opted for a night at the theater. The audience roared at this, the first in a fast-paced series of quips offered up by a parade of colorful characters.

But I knew where he was coming from.

I can’t say that I felt especially eager to see a show last night. Truthfully, I was operating more in housework avoidance mode than theater appreciation mode. And so I bid farewell to my dust bunnies…

I’d heard that “The 39 Steps” was a sort of homage to Hitchcock with a “Spamelot” spin.

That didn’t help.

Other than the shower scene in “Psycho” and the avian attack scenes in “The Birds,” I’m not that familiar with Hitchcock’s work. And the rhythm and ruse of Monty Python’s humor has always escaped me.

My husband gets it. My kids get it. But not me, I’m afraid.

There was really no logical reason for me to have enjoyed last night’s opening of “The 39 Steps” at ASU Gammage—but I did.

I enjoyed it a great deal.

I caught the more obvious references to Hitchcock movie titles like “Rear Window” and “Strangers on a Train”—but learned during a “talk back” with the cast held after the show that there were several other references that I missed.

A teenage boy sitting front and center for the talkback—during which the play’s four actors and one of two understudies sat on the edge of the stage—rattled off quite a few more.

Couple that with the cast member who spent the entire 20 or so minutes in a seated yoga pose I can only approximate for about a minute as something akin to “crisscross applesauce” and you can imagine how terribly fit I felt both mentally and physically at that point.

But no matter—the evening had been a success. I’d replaced drudgery and dust bunnies with follies and funnies.

My children will be pleased to know that I developed a taste for watching others finesse the fine art of slapstick—without having to try it myself in the company of family and friends.


Photo credit: Craig Schwartz, 2009

Note: “Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps” runs through Sunday, April 25, at ASU Gammage. It’s fun for all ages, enjoyable to those who know their Hitchcock as well as those who don’t, and worthy of the many hearty laughs it garnered on opening night.

Coming up: Musings on the Musical Instrument Museum—opening in just three days! For a behind-the-scenes sneak peek at the museum, watch RAK on Channel 12.

Alfred Hitchcock meets Monty Python?

My 16-year-old daughter Lizabeth climbed plenty of steps last week during a whirlwind weeklong adventure in Washington, D.C. and New York City. Think Lincoln monument, U.S. Capitol building, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I spoke to Lizabeth Thursday night after she’d seen her first show on Broadway, “Next to Normal,” and got the feeling she might like to stay in NYC.

I joked that I’d simply send her a credit card, but knew she’d have to wait a few more years to make her own way in the city that never sleeps.

My 18-year-old daughter, Jennifer, feels the same way about San Francisco—so she’d be equally delighted to get a limitless credit card with plane ticket and rent money.

I thought of Lizabeth as I spoke last Friday with actress Claire Brownell, one of four actors appearing in the touring production of “The 39 Steps,” a comedic whodunit based on an early work of British-born American film director and producer Alfred Hitchcock.

I remember watching black and white Hitchcock films like “Psycho” and “The Birds” in the basement of my Colorado home, feeling both energized and terrified by the nightmares I knew would surely follow.

Brownell recalls how she loved watching old movies as a child, especially with her grandma who lived downstairs. Her favorite, she recalls, was “The Court Jester” with Danny Kaye. “I absolutely adored this film,” she sighs.

Brownell says she was equally smitten by “anything with Gene Kelly.” My own daughter Lizabeth, a high school junior busy exploring college theater programs, has always had a thing for the 1952 flick “Singin’ in the Rain.”

Although she wasn’t that familiar with Hitchcock’s work before auditioning for “The 39 Steps,” Brownell says she lucked out after landing an understudy role in the Boston production that eventually went to Broadway.

A classic movie channel was doing a Hitchcock marathon, so she was able to enjoy a bit of Hitchcock every night before she went on stage. Seems she never got more than three-fourths of the way through a movie before racing out the door to make her own theater call time.

I picture Brownell tucked away someday watching the final fourth of every film Hitchcock ever made, but expect she’ll enjoy many decades of acting and other adventures before she slows down long enough for that to happen.

I asked Brownell what she appreciates about Hitchcock’s work. “He creates great suspense,” she says. Still, she adds, you don’t have to be a Hitchcock fan to enjoy the touring production of “The 39 Steps.”

You don’t really think, as you’re watching it, that it’s heavy on Hitchcock—though Hitchcock fans will appreciate the many subtle references to his other works. Instead, says Brownell, folks just really enjoy it and think it’s fabulously funny.

The production features just four actors playing multiple roles in what Brownell describes as “non-stop action.” Clearly Hitchcock doesn’t make for ho-hum theater. Like many Hitchcock works, “The 39 Steps” follows the adventures of a man “caught in circumstances beyond his control.”

“It’s a matter of life and death,” says Brownell, “but a ridiculous one.”

Brownell is clearly proud of the way the work has come together with relatively simple sets, sound and lighting—describing “The 39 Steps” as “a real tribute to what a small group of actors can create together.”

As our conversation drew to a close, I asked Brownell whether the show is appropriate for young audiences. “Not for babes in arms,” she quips. But her eight year old nephew saw it—and really loved it.

“He liked that I died.”


Note: Tickets to “The 39 Steps,” playing April 20-25 at ASU Gammage in Tempe, are now on sale. Call the box office or go online to order.

Coming up: More conversations with Claire Brownell, who shares a bit about her theater training and offers some thoughts for the Valley’s young aspiring actors; Guest post by this year’s “Poetry Out Loud” Arizona champion, who will be representing our state in the 2010 national Poetry Out Loud competition in Washington, D.C.

Have you got art on the brain?

I hadn’t fully realized, when beginning my daily “Stage Mom” posts for Raising Arizona Kids magazine some months ago, that I would soon be finding art in just about everything. 

Consider the case of a press release that recently crossed my virtual desk, a laptop sitting atop a round black pedestal table nestled between my laundry room and  back patio door.

The headline read “Brain food for children: Neuroscience at ASU.”

Being a proud “Sun Devil” mom, I was delighted to learn of the “ASU Brain Fair” taking place from 9am to 2pm on March 22 and 23 on the Tempe campus for Arizona State University.

Might it be possible, I wondered, to write a post about “the fine art of body parts.”

There’s more of it than you might imagine…

At the ASU Brain Fair, for example, 700 children in grades K-5 (along with their teachers) will explore several stations that use art materials to teach children about how the brain works.

At the “neuron station,” students will make neurons out of pipe cleaners. At the “discovery station” they’ll make brains out of Play-Doh. Because I read and listen to a lot of political commentary, I’m tempted to add a snarly snippet here–but I’ll try to hold back.

Some parents may wonder why it’s so important for children to understand and appreciate the brain. Think bike helmets, good. Mind-altering drugs, bad.

I put my own ‘pipe cleaners’ to work looking for additional art/brain connections, and soon discovered “The Dana Foundation,” a “private philanthropic organization that supports brain research.”

Don’t let that fool you. It’s also an incredible resource for arts educators and arts advocates. The www.dana.org website includes exhaustive information on three topics: the brain, immunology and arts education.

I learned Friday night—while attending a performance of the Martha Graham Dance Company at the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts—that the company’s artistic director, Janet Eilber, has served as director of arts education for the foundation.

While surfing the foundation’s website, I stumbled on a blog post titled “Music as a Healer” and a column titled “The Implications of Arts Learning for Families and Parents.”

I also learned that Brain Awareness Week 2010 ran from March 15 through today—so please, be extra good to your brain.

While you’re at it, treat your heart to a little TLC too. Surely you suspected I’d find art in more than just a single body part…

If you’re eager to learn more about the heart in a fun and family-friendly way, check out the Halle Heart Center at the American Heart Association in Tempe—which features some very cool hands-on activities and teaches practical skills that might just save your life one day.

The Valley is also home to something called “The Medical Museum,” a collection of historical medicine-related items exhibited in special display cases throughout Phoenix Baptist Hospital and Medical Center.

I suppose the fine art of body parts is up to individual interpretation…

After learning I was writing this post, my 18-year-old daughter Jennifer was kind enough to alert me to “The Arizona Tattoo Expo 2010,” taking place April 30 to May 2 at the Mesa Convention Center.

I’m going to stick with something a bit more tame—an arts competition from Grand Canyon University designed to “raise heart disease awareness.” The competition is open to all ages and features several fun prizes.

To enter the Grand Canyon University contest, visit facebook.com/grandcanyonu. Or call 602-639-7527 to learn more.

And consider yourself lucky. I’ve used up my word count with no mention of navels, toenails or freckles.


Update: My latest ASU find is a presentation by Janet Napolitano, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security–taking place Thursday, March 25th–on the Tempe campus. For details visit http://justice.clas.asu.edu/lectures. Learn about the live webcast of this event at http://justice.clas.asu.edu/node/118 –Lynn 3/24/10

Note: The Herberger Theater Center Art Gallery has issued a “Call to Artists” for their 2010 exhibitions featuring the theme “Fellow Humans.” Their 2010 art exhibits “will focus on the timeless connection between art and the human form.” May-June 2010 will feature “The Sacred & The Living” and Nov.-Dec. 2010 will feature “The Dance of Life.” The postmark deadline is April 1, 2010. To learn more, visit www.herbergertheater.org.

Coming up: Adventures at the Arizona Museum for Youth, “The 39 Steps” comes to ASU Gammage, Artists unite to battle stigma