BLOOMSBURG - In the opening scene of "The 39 Steps," Richard Hannay is a bored bachelor who longs for "something mindless and trivial. Something utterly pointless."
Then he suddenly discovers the answer. "I know," he says. "I'll go to the theater!"
Those who visit the Alvina Theater, 226 Center St., will find laugh-out-loud looniness that is superbly entertaining. The Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble's production of "The 39 Steps" has 7:30 p.m. performances on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, with 3 p.m. matinees on Sundays, now through March 23.
Shown is a scene from the Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble Production of ‘The 39 Steps.’
Patrick Barlow's stage adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 movie follows the film script closely but adds a wacky, highly energetic touch as four actors play nearly 150 characters in the man-on-the-run spoof of espionage thrillers.
Set in 1930s London, the play follows Richard Hannay as he meets the sensuous Annabella Schmidt at the theater. As she is being followed by foreign agents, Hannay takes her back to his flat, where she is murdered. Forced to go on the run not only from the police, but also to find out the nature of the national security breach to clear his name, Hannay has few precious clues. All he knows from the dead woman is that behind the spy ring may be a man from a small Scottish town, who may be working with another man who has a missing pinky finger, and something called "The 39 Steps."
Visiting actor Aaron White, a self-described "indiscriminate artist" who resides in Williamsport, plays Hannay, a mild-mannered everyday man caught up in the extraordinary - a favorite theme of Hitchcock. White is on stage almost the entire time (nearly two-and-a-half hours with one intermission), but he is the only one of the five-member cast who plays a single role.
Like the others, White displays not only fine acting chops, but also acrobatic prowess, to navigate up, around and down the set - but also to twist and turn while handcuffed to his belligerent lady love.
BTE's Cassandra Pisieczko, after getting bumped off as Annabella Schmidt, takes on two other roles: the elegant Pamela, Hannay's ultimate love interest, and Margaret, the wistful crofter's wife.
Laurie McCants also plays a variety of random funny characters, including the chief constable, the innkeeper Mr. McGarrigle and - yes - a sheep.
Most of the belly laughs come from the whacky portrayals of Richard Cannaday and Daniel Roth as they play dozens of characters of different backgrounds, occupations and genders. Together they provide even more insanity. Cannaday's roles include the sinister Professor Jordan, a thug, a sheriff and, with wigs and nightshirt, the innkeeper's wife Mrs. McGarrigle. Roth appears to be having a true helluva time. His acting is often over-the-top - and in this show, that's really a compliment. Whether it is his cackling laughter, or gruffness as the crofter, his twinkly-eyed Scottish dancer or his final appearance at the play's end, Roth uproariously adds to the play's visual and verbal wackiness. The talented cast lets no visual or verbal joke go ungagged with wigs, clothes, hats and accents often changing in split seconds.
In the intermission during one of last weekend's performances, director James Goode described "The 39 Steps" as "physical comedy to the extreme." Playing to the actor's strengths, Goode, without much written direction in the script, creatively "choreographed" the use of chairs and tables to depict the chases across the top of a racing train, the moors and escape from a trestle bridge.
Top marks go to Elaine Williams' set, which relies on sliding furniture, door frames and a ladder (far more than Millbrook Playhouse's production last summer), allowing BTE's audience to readily buy into all the illusions.
In addition to a slew of costumes, "The 39 Steps" also calls for many complex sound and light cues with BTE's light and sound designs effectively adding to the show's atmosphere. And when the moors need more fog, a fog machine is brought on stage to spew out just the needed amount.
Thanks mainly to Goode's direction and the manic energy and comic timing of the cast whose antics assault the audience's funny bones, "The 39 Steps" is funny, frothy, farcical entertainment.
And Hitchcock fans may add to the fun by trying to pick up references to the Master of Suspense's movies. I picked up three: when Hannaday asks which window to escape from, the answer is "Rear Window"; a crop-dusting plane chases our hero a la "North By Northwest"; and poor Pamela suffers from "Vertigo." Can you top that?
For tickets, call 570-784-8181 or visit www.bte.org.