Campus News

Review: The actors step up in ‘The 39 Steps’

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Life rarely goes according to plan. Depending on the circumstances, or perhaps just your vantage point, this can be either tragic or comic. "The 39 Steps" is the latest production from the Bethel College Department of Theatre. It is a play about things not going according to plan. An ordinary bloke, named Richard Hannay and played by Cameron Matteson, is quite suddenly thrust into a spy thriller when a mysterious foreign woman is murdered in his flat. He is pursued by a shadowy organization known as the 39 Steps in a world of intrigue where clean getaways turn into hot pursuits, allies are actually enemies, foreign agents infiltrate the police, and foes become lovers. But Patrick Barlow’s farcical adaptation of the 1935 Hitchcock melodrama subverts expectations by playing these twists and turns for laughs instead of suspense, with plenty of allusions to other Hitchcock films thrown in for the keen observer. However, Bethel’s production is also not what one would expect. The show was designed around the concept of a play within a play where things aren’t always going quite according to plan. Matteson is caught singing backstage instead of making his first entrance. Someone knocks on a door, and a bell rings. Actors have to call on a slightly bumbling crew for props or set pieces. The creative variety of these bits was impressive in itself. Unfortunately, the trope also wore a bit thin after a while, especially when gags dragged on and took away from the action of what is already a very funny play. It is in the performances of its actors that this production really excels. Matteson is confident and charismatic in the lead role, simply a pleasure to watch—which is good since he barely leaves the stage. His serious reactions to each misfortune he encounters provide plenty of comic fodder for the audience. Even that strong performance is arguably upstaged by the antics of Morgan Joy Spiess and Allison Condit as the “Clowns.” Together, these two talented actors portray dozens of extras, and sometimes several at the same time. Their roles include, but are not limited to vaudevillian performers, bawdy underwear salesman, police officers, fighter pilots, and Scottish highlanders. Condit’s ability to completely transform her face (with or without the many fake mustaches employed) is extraordinary. And Spiess brings terrific energy to every new role, even if her weakest character is, unfortunately, the story’s villain. Rounding out the cast is Sarah Leigh Beason, also playing multiple characters, each of whom shares a spark of romance with Matteson’s Hannay. Beason is a dynamo on stage, so explosive with energy that she is almost too big for the play. But in evaluating performances for this particular production, one must also address the most unique technical aspect of the show—the set. Other than a second proscenium for meta-theatrical concept, the only other major set piece is a white wall. But onto this wall, various spaces and settings are projected, each one digitally drawn by assistant set designer April Reed. The convention is a new one for Bethel Theatre. Its effectiveness varies, and the stylized drawings also take some getting used to. However, it is the creativity of these projections which really shines, making it possible to really portray the story’s cross-country chase. The show’s other technical aspects are strong as well. Of course, all the purposeful goofs do make it difficult to discern what might be intentional lapses and what accidental. But in actuality, the crew moves with swift precision in the many scene changes. Perhaps the only questionable technical aspect of the show is the lighting. Limited by preserving the projected backgrounds, the design relies heavily on side lighting and spotlights, creating effects sometimes dramatic, but sometimes annoying. Ultimately, in every area, "The 39 Steps" made bold choices and committed to them. As with much of the script’s action, these choices are often not what an audience member might anticipate. One must respect and admire the production’s whole-hearted commitment to its concept, even if it is unclear if that concept added more than it detracted. What cannot be questioned, however, is the audience’s reaction. Whatever they came to the theatre expecting, what they found was energy, creativity, and laughter.
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