One of the best local theatrical productions in recent memory is hidden in a warehouse tucked away in an alley next to a liquor store.
It’s called “found space” in theater circles, the conversion of an out-of-the-ordinary site into a bona fide theater. And as far as providing a showcase for Merely Players’ production of the wonderful mystery farce “The 39 Steps,” it might as well be the Shubert.
The play is a spoof of a dime-store spy novel that became an actual Alfred Hitchcock movie in the ’30s. The play follows the exact plot, almost scene-for-scene, but it mocks the melodrama of the actual story. As one who has seen the movie as well as a professional production several years ago at the Helen Hayes Theater in New York, I can say that this cast and crew gets it as well as any who have tackled the script. Which, despite the farce, is still a mystery, and you won’t find out what The 39 Steps are by reading this.
Director Mona Wood-Patterson invited back four of her favorite alumni from her Durango High School days to fill the roles, of which there are many. Austin Hohnke is the only actor to play only one role – the man in the wrong place at the wrong time, Richard Hannay. Hohnke is perfect in the role, from his convincing British accent to his pencil mustache. Hohnke now lives in Brooklyn but will spend the summer in St. Louis, appearing in “Legally Blonde: The Musical.”
Elizabeth Gray, also a neo-Brooklynite working actress, is back for the summer and handles the three principal female roles superbly. Gray is a natural comedic actress, and she morphs from the exotic spy Annabella into the Scottish country lass Margaret and finally into the misguided but well-meaning Pamela.
The hardest-working cast members are the duo of Misha Fristensky and Landon Newton, who play every other role – policemen, bad guys, good guys, passers-by, a milkman, old women, old men – as well as inanimate objects. Their speed, timing and energy are essential to the success of the play. Fristensky stands out not only for his versatility, but also for his athleticism, which is indispensable in several scenes.
Not to go unnoticed are stage manager and assistant stage manager Dena Poer and Jeff Cordell, respectively. They are as indispensable as any of the four cast members, creating an ever-evolving set with lightning-quick changes and hand-offs of props to the actors. The production moves quickly and even a momentary lapse can break the mood. Poer and Cordell had no less rehearsal than anyone seen on stage and should be credited as such.
Of course, a Merely Players production wouldn’t be a Merely Players production without the skills of Charles Ford and his crew. Most of the carpentry work was spent on constructing a stage, wings and seating area, so the actual on-stage set isn’t as visually exquisite as many of Ford’s previous efforts. But what is lacking aesthetically is more than made up for with Ford’s technical know-how. In this case, the use of sound effects, lighting and the adroitness of the cast to use Ford’s minimal sets to perfection are as impressive as anything he’s ever built. In particular, Wood-Patterson’s and Ford’s staging of the famous train and bridge escape is brilliant, using all of the talents of the cast and crew as well as the unique structure of the warehouse to create a dramatic yet hilarious scene.
“The 39 Steps” is here for a short run and the warehouse only seats about 70. The four young actors have gotten a lot of polish since they left town, and their affection for each other and the rest of the Merely Players troupe is infectious and apparent. This production can’t come with a higher recommendation. See it, or be sorry you missed it.