Blank Canvas Theatre’s film noir parody ‘The 39 Steps’ takes flight but cuts corners
By Bob Abelman
In the opening scene of Patrick Barlow’s aerobic stage adaptation of the classic, 1935 Alfred Hitchcock spy movie “The 39 Steps,” dashing and abundantly bored Richard Hannay seeks “something mindless and trivial, something utterly pointless” to amuse himself. So he goes to the theater.
Once there, he inadvertently gets mixed up with double agents, accidentally uncovers a plot to steal vital British military secrets, gets framed for murder and, of course, takes it on the lam.
Audiences also seeking something mindless will find it in Blank Canvas Theatre’s thoroughly entertaining but relatively low-risk production of this 2008 Tony Award-winning play.
“The 39 Steps” is a romp from beginning to end — a parody of film noir romantic thrillers with their low-budget aesthetics, gentlemanly heroes with mysterious femme fatales, dark and misty ambiance, and abrupt twists and turns. Every cinematic cliché, every cloak-and-dagger genre convention, and every Hitchcockian quirk is accentuated in this immensely clever play.
All this is handled nicely by the talented cast, consisting of Joe Kenderes as our square-jawed and thin-mustached hero Richard Hannay, Rachael Swartz as all of the female protagonists found in film noir storytelling, and Kevin Kelly and Michael Prosen as everyone else.
However, much of the work’s theatrical extravagances and creative indulgences are rendered a tad less theatrical and indulgent in this production.
Under Patrick Ciamacco’s vision and direction, this production circumvents the prerequisite and much relied upon athleticism of the cast and the imagination of the audience as everyday objects get turned into objects d’art reflective of Hitchcock’s psychological thrillers. Instead, it often takes technological short cuts.
Case in point is the wonderful chase scene atop a speeding train which, as originally conceived, was meant to be executed with only a handful of wood crates, some dramatic lighting, and the immense physicality and miming skills of the performers. Here at Blank Canvas — in opposition to its namesake — the train is given form and animation by projected imagery designed by Perren Hedderson.
While this certainly adds an intriguing cinematic component to a play that parodies Hitchcock’s signature cinematography, it misses the point — and much of the fun — of having to manufacture on stage and from scratch what was made for the screen.
In addition to technological short cuts, this production somewhat diminishes the archetypes that define film noir. Kenderes’ frenzied Hannay is a delight, but he strays from the character type’s perpetually cocked eyebrow and cavalier approach to danger. And Ciamacco abandons the play’s tendency to make its characters overtly self-aware and who seem, to our amusement, to recognize their own absurd melodrama. Here, they just talk back to the audience.
Also, as Clown No. 1 and Clown No. 2 — roles crafted to deliver vaudevillian showmanship, particularly in scenes requiring quick costume and character changes — Kelly and Prosen lack the necessary speed, dexterity and collective comic timing to pull it off. Instead, they merely clown around. Fortunately, Kelly is particularly adept at manifesting and milking very funny moments outside the script.
In short, Blank Canvas has prioritized silly over style, which while playful and very entertaining, is pedestrian. This production takes “mindless and trivial, something utterly pointless” a bit too literally. CV
WHAT: “The 39 Steps”
WHERE: Blank Canvas Theatre, 1305 W. 78th St., Cleveland
WHEN: Through March 19
TICKETS & INFO: $18, visit blankcanvastheatre.com or call 440-941-0458
Abelman covers theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3.
Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on March 17, 2016.
Lead image: Joe Kendere, from left, as Richard Hannay, Kevin Kelly as Clown No. 1, Michael Prosen as Clown No. 2 and Rachael Swartz as Annabella/Pamela/Margaret. PHOTO | Andy Dudik