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.
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”