‘39 Steps’ celebrates the magic of theater

From left, Catharine Pilafas, Ezra Colón, Peter Diseth and Martin Andrews are in the cast of “The 39 Steps.” (Courtesy of Rick Galli)

From left, Catharine Pilafas, Ezra Colón, Peter Diseth and Martin Andrews are in the cast of “The 39 Steps.” (Courtesy of Rick Galli)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Sometimes it’s only a short step from one genre to another. Alfred Hitchcock was the master of suspense, but Patrick Barlow has crafted a brilliant farce out of Hitchcock’s 1935 movie “The 39 Steps,” which is currently receiving an expertly done madcap production at Duke City Repertory Theatre.

Hitchcock based his espionage thriller on John Buchan’s 1915 novel, but the play itself is indebted more to the film than the original book. In fact it’s a pastiche of classic Hitchcock motifs, with occasional allusions to other Hitchcock movies as well, such as “Rear Window” and North by Northwest.”

But what makes “The 39 Steps” such a delightful evening of theater is the pure, unremitting theatricality on display. The production itself is really a celebration of theater’s magic, beginning and ending in a London variety theater.

In fact, the focal point of the set, wonderfully designed by Chesapeake Dalrymple, is a proscenium frame with red curtain, surrounded by a wide assortment of props and set pieces that evoke the 1930s.

Through the ingenuity of the actors, the expert direction of Vincent Carlson-Brown, and the design team, the intimate space of The Cell instantly metamorphoses from a variety theater, to Hannays’ flat, to train compartment, to country inn, to police car cruising down a country road in the Scottish moors (ultimately obstructed by a herd of sheep) and much else.

Perhaps best of all is a chase scene on the top of a moving train, and then a bridge. How it’s done – simply but with breathtaking, hilarious ingenuity – I’ll leave you to find out for yourself.

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Reminiscent of the masterful Charles Ludlam and his Ridiculous Theatrical Company, four actors play all the parts. With perfect comic timing Peter Diseth embodies the dashing but lonely bachelor Richard Hannay, falsely accused and on the run both from the cops and the evil spy ring that wants him dead; Catharine Pilafas, with equally proficient comic timing, plays all three of the beautiful women that Hannay encounters along the way, including the mistrustful Pamela, whom he winds up handcuffed to for a good long time. This is one of the highlights of the show, because the barely repressed sexual energy of the Hitchcock films explodes into full hilarious life in this wonderfully over-the-top comedy.

The dozens of other characters, both men and women, are played by the remarkably resourceful Ezra Colón and Martin Andrews, billed in the program as Clown 1 and Clown 2. To see Andrews go from Mr. Memory at the London Palladium to the evil Nazi spy Professor Jordon and back again (and again, and again) is a wonder to behold. Likewise Ezra Colón plays the oversexed and voyeuristic (but well meaning) inn keeper’s wife with delightful comic verve, and had the audience laughing uproariously.

Everybody loves Alfred Hitchcock movies, but you don’t have to be a Hitchcock fan (or even know his films) to enjoy this show. This is pure, all-out, exuberant comedy and farce, and not to be missed.

Playing through May 24. Call 797-7081 for reservations.

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