REVIEW:  In these tough times, escape down Greater Boston Stage Company’s zany production of Hitchcock’s ‘The 39 Steps’

What are the 39 Steps?

Like so many Hitchcock creations, it’s complicated.  However, though this Hitchcock production is presented during Halloween season, please don’t let that scare you away.  The 39 Steps is based on John Buchan’s 1915 thriller novel by the same name, was adapted by Alfred Hitchcock into a classic British film in 1935, and adapted to the stage by Patrick Barlow.  Though The 39 steps will certainly keep the audience on its toes, it has more than its share of comedic moments sure to deliver more laughter than frights. 

Greater Boston Stage Company joyfully returned indoors to present Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller comedy mystery, The 39 Steps which continues through Sunday, October 10 at the Greater Boston Stage Company in Stoneham, MA.  The show runs approximately 2 hours and 15 min including an intermission.  Click here for more information and tickets.

Directed imaginatively by llyse Robbins, this dynamic crime noir boasts plenty of vintage flair as well as adventure, romance, comedy, and suspense.  However, what really makes this show such fun is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously.

KP Powell and Paul Melendy in ‘The 39 Steps’ Photo courtesy of Greater Boston Stage Company

The 39 Steps pay tribute to Hitchcock’s body of works with a catchy story while spoofing some of his most famous works along the way.  Vertigo and Rear Window is just a portion of the Hitchcock Easter eggs run amok in this production.  Some of the dark and witty humor from The 39 Steps call to mind humor likened to other murder mystery comedy classics including Clue.

Shelley Barish’s modest and multi-functional set design, Daisy Long’s mercurial lighting, and Andrew Duncan Will’s exceptional, carefully-timed sound effects play a pivotal role in some of the production’s most humorous scenes.  Moveable set pieces transform each scene and costume designer Rachel Padula-Shufelt’s colorful gowns, dynamic wigs, and tweed and paisley suits enliven the production’s vintage noir atmosphere. 

Taking on this production was no small feat for its four stellar actors who depict a total of 150 characters.  However, they were more than up for the task as they sometimes cleverly and quite literally switch roles at the drop of a hat or within seconds.  With impeccable timing and snappy chemistry, these dynamic performers bring to life a variety of accents and deliver a great deal of physical comedy while delivering sharp and at times quirky dialogue. 

Russell Garett, KP Powell, Grace Experience, and Paul Melendy in a makeshift car in ‘The 39 Steps’ Photo courtesy of Greater Boston Stage Company

Paul Melendy portrays Richard Hannay with a mix of bumbling and debonair charm.  Set in Scotland, he is a man on the run after a chance encounter with a femme fatale in all her forms by Grace Experience, leading to a murder mystery.   What Grace Experience does particularly well is though she depicts each character distinctly, they all have the same familiar strength, resourcefulness, and truthfulness as the tale unfolds.  With Russell Garrett and KP Powell quite often after Hannay, it’s a madcap adventure with high jinx galore and likable characters that range from a ludicrous man with ridiculous eyebrows to a flirtatious and outspoken innkeeper.  Some of the scenes are arbitrary and self aware and a couple of gags get a bit repetitive, yet fit right into the production’s silly charm.

From L to R: Russell Garrett, Paul Melendy, Grace Experience, and KP Powell in ‘The 39 Steps’ Photo courtesy of Greater Boston Stage Company

Take a break from these difficult times and escape down Greater Boston Stage Company’s unconventional, madcap, and lighthearted The 39 Steps continuing through Sunday, October 10.  Click here for more information, tickets, and for a closer look at Greater Boston’s Stage Company’s 22nd season.

Centastage’s Joe Antoun directs Shakespeare with a comedic, twist-filled spin in new play, ‘Noir Hamlet’

Picture a dark night in 1949 Los Angeles, a mysterious death, a new take on a classic, twist-filled tale, and a play within a…comedy?  That’s what happens when playwright John Minigan melds key elements of Shakespeare’s classic tale while throwing in a doll, a dame, and a detective in Centastage’s Noir Hamlet continuing through Saturday, June 30 at Boston Center for the Arts in Boston, Massachusetts.  Even for those familiar with Hamlet, this tale is full of surprises.  Click here for more information and tickets.

Noir Hamlet Paul Melendy

Paul Melendy as Hamlet in Noir Hamlet

Centastage’s Executive Director, founding member, and Noir Hamlet’s director Joseph Antoun discusses classic noir, Write On, and just where the idea for Noir Hamlet came from.  Joe won an IRNE for Excellence in Theatre.

Sleepless Critic:  Noir Hamlet is a fascinating, inventive play.  Since Shakespeare’s Hamlet has dark and mysterious elements, it’s easy to see the connection to noir.  However, this is a full-length comedy in one act.  How did this show come together?

Joseph Antoun:  John Minigan, part of our Write On playwriting group that meets once a month, wrote Noir Hamlet.  It was read in our playwriting group episodically, which means a couple of scenes brought it every now and then.  Through that process, John was able to shape this show.  Several playwrights bring in their work.

Noir Hamlet has key elements of the famous Shakespeare play such as finding out the mystery behind Hamlet’s father’s death.  Four actors are playing multiple roles.  The secretary’s name is Ray Chio, like ‘Horatio’ in John’s language and the same actor who plays Rey also plays Yorick’s skull.  Hamlet and Gertrude strictly play their roles, but Claude, as in Claudius, also portrays the Ghost of Hamlet and a character named Paolo Niro.  In that case, they are switching characters, but Rae is a love interest for Hamlet.  There’s also questions raised if Claude is also carrying on with Rae.  The show has lots of red herrings.

Noir Hamlet Robert D Murphy and Liz Adams

Robert D Murphy and Liz Adams in Noir Hamlet through June 30. Photo courtesy of Centastage

SC:  It’s vintage noir style.  That must have been fun to put on stage.

JA:  It was a riot!  The comedy has not only the noir look with long trench coats and fedoras, but the stereotypical language such as ‘mug,’ ‘doll,’ and ‘dame.’   It’s a fast moving script with lots of twists.

SC:  It’s a comedy, so I imagine the way this show is put together, even if the audience has read Hamlet, they still won’t know what is coming.

JA:  If the audience knows Hamlet, they’ll get a kick out what is acknowledged and paid homage to.  If they think by knowing Hamlet they’ll figure out the story, they’ll be surprised.

Noir Hamlet Cristhian Mancinas-Garcia

Noir Hamlet’s Cristhian Mancinas-Garcia Photo courtesy of Centastage

SC:  A few local performers are taking the stage such as Liz Adams from Medford.  How was the audition process held?

JA:  It was a very personal type of casting.  I knew I wanted Paul Melendy for Hamlet because I had directed hi m before.  I knew Bob Murphy has the right comic timing.  He understands the show and Hamlet very well, so I knew he could enhance it.  Last year in Newburyport, Cristhian Mancinas-Garcia, who plays Rey, took part in a Noir Hamlet reading and John was pleased with it.  I admired Liz Adams’s work.  She played Julius Caesar in the all-female actor Shakespeare project version of Julius Caesar.  A lot of the audition process was just one-on-one interviews more than monologues or sonnets.

Coincidentally, we’re in the Black Box Theatre for Noir Hamlet, but across the hall in the Plaza Theatre, OWI is performing Red Velvet, calling it an Othello like you’ve never seen before.

Noir Hamlet Paul Melendy as Hamlet

Paul Melendy as Hamlet in Noir Hamlet Photo courtesy of Centastage

SC:  What was most surprising about this production together?

JA:  One is the lightning pace of the show.  The faster the pacing, the funnier and better the show will be.  What is also surprising is the physical humor in it.  How funny simple actions such as turning the head or stepping out of the scene in film noir style have been.

SC:  His Girl Friday, an old film starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, is not exactly a film noir, but the pacing is also incredibly quick.  One can detect four jokes in one line.  It’s a brilliant film.

JA:  Yes, Noir Hamlet has the same style and it pays homage to that film.  I watched a whole lot of film noir to catch up on the noir language such as Laura, The Big Sleep, and film noir-style films like Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Naked GunNoir Hamlet is its own thing though it has its influences.

SC:  Centastage is in its 28th season.  How has it evolved over the years?

Centastage started with seasons of new plays by local writers and I realized I didn’t think we were serving audiences or playwrights by a season every year of the best plays we received if I didn’t feel like they were ready for production.  Over time, we started putting more energy into the development process of new plays.  Now we do a new play when we think we have a script ready for it.

In 2015, our last full production was IRNE-nominated Academy Fight Song by Andrew Clarke.  It took five years to develop between Andrew Clarke, the playwright, doing readings, rewriting it, and us rereading it.   Centastage is a great community to be a part of and it’s nice to deal with playwrights, actors, directors, and designers.

Centastage New work

Courtesy of Centastage

SC:  Please tell me about Write On, which is how Noir Hamlet came together in the first place.

JA:  Write On has been meeting since 1994 on the first Monday of every month.  We have actors come who like to write plays.  The members bring in work and we read and discuss them.  John Minigan has a dramatic piece that is a Eugene O’ Neill finalist this year.  When he brought Noir Hamlet in the first time, the people laughed their way through acting it.  The theatre group has been great.  We have been through years of big numbers but right now.   My guess is that we are at 12-15 regular playwrights.   It’s a very thoughtful process.  All genres, all forms and open to whoever wants to join.  We also put together readings open to the public, social events, and on the website are playwright and actor head shots as well as show titles that have gone on to Centastage full productions.

SC:  I imagine you hear a lot of shows that come across the board.  How do you decide which on you want to work with?

JA:  That’s a really good question.  A lot of it is my gut.  I enjoy plays with a strong sense of character, good storytelling, and surprising themes.   I have actors that come into the writing group and I also teach at Emerson which exposes me to not only young actors, but professional actors who are on faculty and we have open auditions.

I believe in building bridges between playwrights and artists.  Playwrights that have you read their play in a reading start to build a bridge between you and that work.  I think it’s a good way to connect with new plays coming up.

Noir Hamlet poster

Noir Hamlet continues through June 30 Photo courtesy of Centastage

It sounds like Centastage plays a big part in the whole picture.  Click here for more information and tickets to Noir Hamlet, continuing through Saturday, June 30 at Boston Center for the Arts, 539 Tremont Street in Boston, Massachusetts.  Click here for more information on Centastage and here for Write On.  Follow Centastage on Facebook and Twitter.

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