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BURSTING AT THE SEAMS: Big Dawg’s ‘The 39 Steps’ provides copious laughter with admission

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Big Dawg Productions has had a very successful year with their concept season of “companion pieces,” as artistic director Steve Vernon refers to it. They began with two Neil Simon shows back to back, moved forward with Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap” and then Tom Stoppard’s murder mystery spoof, “The Real Inspector Hound.” This fall Big Dawg continues with a Hitchcock double header: first, Patrick Barlow’s 2005 adaptation of “The 39 Steps,” followed by “The Birds Attack!”—a parody stage production of Hitchcock’s “The Birds.” Looking at the number of sold-out shows they have had this year, clearly they are on to something. With a full house the first weekend and a sold out Friday night, “The 39 Steps” is no exception.

39The stage show “The 39 Steps” is a zany recreation of Hitchcock’s movie (more so than of John Buchan’s book that inspired the film). Four actors portray all the characters: Steve Rassin takes on the hero, Richard Hannay. Tamica Katzmann portrays three different women essential to Hannay’s success. And then there are two clowns, Randy Davis and Anthony Corvino, who  tackle all of the remaining characters (in the best traditions of screwball comedy).

This is the second production of this script  in town just this year. In the spring Jason Aycock and Heather Setzler brought Hannay and his female accomplices to life. Aycock and Setzler (real-life married couple) have fascinating chemistry together and play farce so well that another production would have to head in a very different direction to avoid comparison. And these productions are incredibly different. Much like the curiosity to see how different performers approach “Santaland Diaries” drives annual audiences to the holiday favorite, these two shows highlight different skill sets and interpretations of the material.

Scott Davis’ set design calls to mind an early 20th century road circuit theatre, putting the era in mind along with the conceit that this is a show about breaking not only the fourth wall but all walls (as the window gag drives home over and over again—and it never gets old). We open with the clowns attempting to arrange the set pieces, and their antics make it clear that “realism” is not the watch word of the evening.

We meet Hannay and learn he is basically at loose ends. Seeking some sort of pleasure or diversion or insight, he heads to the theatre where the beautiful Annabella Schmidt (Katzmann) disrupts the performance and attaches herself to Hannay. Naturally, back at his apartment where Rassin’s Hannay leers at her in expectation of a night of erotic stimulation, Annabella—in her laugh-inducing over-the-top German accent—embroils Hannay in an espionage plot to prevent top-secret information from leaving the country. Annabella is, of course, murdered in Hannay’s apartment (Katzmann’s credits in the program should include “corpse” as she spends an extended period onstage as a plot element and sight gag). Hannay goes on the lam, first with the assistance of a milkman he defrauds (Randy Davis) of his coat, hat and money. Davis’ rendition of the much put upon and world-weary milkman manages to be comedic and bittersweet all at once. That perhaps is what makes the roles of the clowns work: They are supposed to be the comic foils to Hannay’s oblivious straight man, but they must also bring enough empathy to each character for the audience to sympathize with them and the story.

So off Hannay goes on a whirlwind trip to Scotland, to try and stop top-secret information from leaving the country. Along the way, he is helped and hindered by a variety of people, including a very dour Scotsman (Davis) and his beautiful, young, wistful wife, Margaret (Katzmann). Aside from finding it hard to believe that a woman as beautiful as Katzmann hungers for makeup and painted toenails, director Josh Bailey has inserted a sight gag for dinner at this point in the show that not only cracks up the audience but almost makes all performers onstage break into laughter as well. Annabella and Margaret aside, it is the beguiling and uncooperative Pamela (Katzmann) who steals the show and ultimately Hannay’s bachelor heart. Her attempts to save her dignity and good name while handcuffed to Hannay strike that twin chord of heart-rending sympathy and absurdity in the face of reality.

On the topic of sight gags, this show is rife with them. Perhaps one of the more endearing and perplexing is the knitted fake beard the clowns share, including Corvino, who has a full beard but still dons the article. Good lord! Between the visual humor (which is constant) and the clowns’ antics, laughter pops from every seam and makes the price of admission well worth it. The clowns pull off some magnificent tricks as incredibly aged political operatives, sly double agents, ineffective policemen, a long married couple, and of course as the stage act for Mr. Memory.

The script itself is a wonderful homage to Hitchcock. Not only does it bring “The 39 Steps” to life but constantly references other Hitchcock films (“North by Northwest,” “Rear Window,” “Vertigo”). Given the focus our community has toward film, this show seems like an obvious choice as the perfect union of cinema, theatre and humor. There is so much to enjoy about this show: script, performances, and sheer zaniness of it all. It is easy to see why Big Dawg is selling out already. I can only hope “The Birds Attack!” is as successful.

The 39 Steps
Sept. 22-25, and 29-Oct. 2,
8 p.m., or Sunday, 3 p.m.
Cape Fear Playhouse
613 Castle Street
Tickets: $15-$20

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