THE 39 STEPS (Theatre Horizon): Thriller? I hardly know her!

Walking into Theatre Horizon’s lovely Norristown space, you might be forgiven for thinking their season had already ended. Onstage is a careful recreation of an empty theater, complete with swinging sandbags, black painted brick, a load-in barn door, and onstage balcony seats which are just begging for Statler and/or Waldorf (set design by Samina Vieth). The immediate reaction? There is going to be some crazy metaphysical theater going on here tonight.

Adam Altman, Steve Pacek, and Damon Bonetti in Hitchcock's THE 39 STEPS at Theatre Horizon.
Adam Altman, Steve Pacek, and Damon Bonetti in Hitchcock’s THE 39 STEPS at Theatre Horizon. Photo by Matthew J. Photography.

You’d not be far off, either. What follows is 39 Steps, Patrick Barlow’s giggling remake of the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock film of the same name. 39 Steps follows the travails of Richard Hannay (ably played by Damon Bonetti and his pencil-thin mustache), who meets a beautiful german woman (Genevieve Perrier) and is promptly framed for her murder; we watch him run for his life from the law as he attempts to unravel the cause of her dispatch.

Plot-wise, the play stays quite true to the original film (often down to the dialogue), with a few other Hitchcock references (I caught The Birds, Psycho, and Vertigo) thrown in for good measure. The difference? This play is the height of camp: rapid-fire costume changes happen before our eyes, outlandish accents and physicalities dot the landscape, characters construct planes, trains, and automobiles out of simple trunks and music stands, and most every punchline is punctuated with a cymbal crash or piano flurry.

Director Matt Pfeiffer and his cast have constructed a grand comedy machine with this production; each lazzi is tightly honed and orchestrated, and the grunts, stamps, and clanks of various characters mark the meter of the madness. There’s a hesitency to the actors at times (perhaps due to the meticulous and abundant nature of the choreography), which prevents the play from really moving to full-throttle, but for the most part the rapid costume changes, wild scene shifts and raucous chase scenes go off without a hitch. (The shadow puppetry is particularly well-done.)

The real credit here goes to whomever is calling the shots in the booth (production stage manager Bayla Rubin), who is able to stitch together a dizzying list of lights, sounds, actions, props, and people in a way that feels like it came out of the editing room. Say what you will about what happens when lights are up, it’s the darkness between scenes where many plays lose their audience, and this ship is run about as well as they come.

It all adds up to a fine evening; even with a few choreographic strings showing, this show caters well to a wide variety of theatergoers; if you’re a fan of Hitchcock, old-school silly James Bond, existentialist theater, clown, or really anything outside the niche demographic of hopeless curmudgeon, you might consider taking a trip out to Norristown over the next few weeks. [Theatre Horizon, 401 DeKalb St, Norristown, PA] May 15-June 8, 2014,


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