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01 Mar 2014

Attention to the Details: Comedy-Mystery 'The 39 Steps' Is a Success in Every Way

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Karen Jean Olds and Jeffrey Cannata in The 39 Steps. Karen Jean Olds and Jeffrey Cannata in The 39 Steps. Ed Krieger

A cast of dozens! And only four people onstage.

Pardon?

The ever-faithful fans of Coyote Stageworks and the Annenberg Theater were rained-on, wind-blown, warmly bundled and umbrella-toting on the opening night of The 39 Steps. Though I never actually took an oath with the Independent along the lines of “neither wind nor sleet nor rain shall keep me from my appointed critique,” the harrowing drive (The traffic! Is our valley turning into Temecula?) to the theater was bountifully rewarded by this terrific new show: The 39 Steps is a must-see, regardless of wet weather or any other excuse.

It’s an homage to Hitchcock, a murder-mystery that paradoxically rocks you with laughter and acting brilliance. Set in 1935 in England and Scotland, The 39 Steps echoes the growing pre-war paranoia of those times. Though we too often take for granted the special effects of a show, in this production, they are stars, as Coyote Stageworks uses beyond-clever techniques with shadows or silhouettes, and a pervading moodiness that hangs over the entire play, giving a contrasting background to the levity taking place onstage. Kudos, as always, to Phil Murphy for his lighting innovations!

It would be so interesting to know what percentage of the genius that we see here comes from the actors, the director and the script directions. We’ll never know; all that we see is the end result of this happy union. The damp but enthusiastic opening-night audience gave warm applause at the end of every scene. (This is the second stop for this production; a few weeks ago, it ended a stint at the Norris Center for the Performing Arts down in Rolling Hills Estates, near Torrance.)

The director, Ken Parks, must be celebrated for his energy, consistency and his devotion to wringing every possible bit of action out of the script. (His resume will make your eyes widen in awe.) He keeps things hopping (You try directing a scene that takes place on an old train!) with delightful surprises—such as a tiny train itself, which chugs its way across the stage, an amazing detail for just a few seconds of amusement: Where did they get these tracks? Who starts the train, and who catches it at the other end? And what about the doors? There are so many doors! How much rehearsal time did THAT take to figure out?

You think these are small details? The actors have their hands full every second, because except for smoothly handsome Jeffrey Cannata, as the world-weary hero Richard Hannay (and he actually manages to be funny, too, a rarity in a lead role of this sort), they all play multiple roles. What could be more wonderful for an actor than the chance to show off one’s skills by playing a dazzling assortment of characters? The result is an unforgettable demonstration of acting chops by brilliant thespians. Their energy alone is breath-taking.

Every acting student, every actor and every director in town should see this show. Too often in regional theater, people use the “it’s just” excuse: It’s just regional theater. But this play shows what can be done in the hands of highly trained, hard-working, classically educated actors. Every single character they create is fully realized; they don’t just switch costumes. Everything—from the accents (some incomprehensible, as certain British/Scottish dialects are to the American ear, unfortunately) to the footwork to the eyebrows to the gestures to the breathing—is shrewdly planned and flawlessly executed.

The company’s sole lady is Karen Jean Olds. She plays three roles, creating complete transmogrifications between them. Slender and pretty, she moves convincingly from a hard exotic German spy (with the weirdest accent ever uttered on a stage) to a heartbreaking downtrodden Scottish farm wife to a wide-eyed and innocent young blonde on a train; it’s impossible to discern which one is most like “her.” Terrific work.

The two character actors will make your jaws drop. Kenny Landmon and Louis Lotorto are billed as Clown 1 and Clown 2. No, they don't have red fright wigs and oogah horns; this is the classic definition of a clown. These two amazing actors demonstrate a variety of comedy shtick and lightning-fast quick changes, as well as a stunning number of voices, attitudes and details unique to each character. Each one also plays a female at some time in the play, and both bring a lovely grace to these roles that is beyond charming. They shamelessly steal from vaudeville, burlesque, revue and, of course, Hitchcock; they make the show pure fun even when they aren’t being funny.  My favorite scene—it’s almost impossible to choose one—is probably the “political rally,” with the “clowns” playing two doddering patriots who assume our hapless hero (who stumbles in seeking refuge) is their speaker for the evening. Priceless.

The bizarre plot twists help; you just can’t fathom what will happen next. However, it’s the string of characters who are created here that will astound you and make you applaud wildly.

Though the show runs two hours and 20 minutes, we can only hope the cast is not exhausted by it (Jeffrey Cannata, for example, is in almost every scene), because it’s totally exhilarating for the audience. A display of pure talent is always exciting, and it will raise your respect for the profession to see this show. 

Don’t miss it—even if you need an umbrella to get there.

Coyote Stageworks’ production of The 39 Steps takes place at various times through Sunday, March 9, at the Annenberg Theater at the Palm Springs Art Museum, 101 Museum Drive, Palm Springs. Tickets are $39 to $55. For tickets or more information, call 760-325-4490, or visit www.psmuseum.org/palm-springs/performance/39-steps.

1 comment

  • Comment Link Kaye Saturday, 01 March 2014 17:22 posted by Kaye

    Boy, did VJ Hume get this review spot on! It was an exhilarating, giddy tour de force! And at prices that range from $39-$55 ($39-$49 for the matinees), it must be one of the best values in the Coachella Valley.

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