Keeping it fresh is one of the challenges a cast faces during the run of a show, but some shows are more challenging than others. This is especially true of “The 39 Steps,” the madcap riff on Alfred Hitchcock’s movie spy thriller that is rollicking nightly at the Guthrie Theater.
It’s the kind of show that depends on establishing a level of absurdity that seems almost spontaneous, yet choreographed to the split second. There are no idle gestures, no throwaway moments, and the physical stuff — there’s plenty of it — has to involve intense precision by all hands.
In this case, it’s a cast of four (the wonderful quartet of Robert O. Berdahl, Jim Lichtscheidl, Luverne Seifert and Sarah Agnew) playing a cast of thousands. Their work involves such things as impersonating a chase scene inside and atop a moving train — which is itself a train improvised out a collection of steamer trunks — or getting tangled in a fence while handcuffed to each other. At other times they change characters without leaving the stage, or dash off as male and return as female.
So what happens when the whole thing is thrown off at the start? That occurred Tuesday night when the performance started late and suddenly ended in a blackout. The stage went dark during the set-up monologue where actor Berdahl introduces himself as Richard Hannay, the British gentleman hero whose quiet, boring life is about to be upended by a framing for murder (or “murther,” as his pursuers pronounce it).
The house lights came up a moment after the blackout and there sat Berdahl in the leather chair of his London apartment, obviously hoping this was a momentary glitch. It wasn’t. After a few minutes, Berdahl ambled off and a disembodied voice from the control booth announced that fixing the glitch would require an intermission. Stagehands came out and fixed some props and members of the audience shuffled off to the bar.
When the show resumed, by now about 45 minutes past the scheduled curtain time, they started over from the top and Berdahl’s only acknowledgement came after repeating lines the audience had already heard with an adlibbed aside — “Hmm. Déjà vu.”
It’s not necessary to see Hitchcock’s 1935 thriller to appreciate the stage romp, which also includes sly references to “The Birds,” “Psycho,” “North By Northwest” and even a creepy musical excerpt from Robert Wise’s “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (fans of theremin music will be thrilled).
I will not dwell on the plot, which begins with a run-in between Hannay and a mysterious Mata Hari shortly before she is bumped off by a coterie of spies. “Dey vil schtoop at nutting and only I can schtoop dem!” she declares. From there it’s a chase to Scotland and back before the final denouement in a West End theater.
The New York production of “The 39 Steps” received a lot of press when it opened several years ago and while I did not see it, the descriptions of Patrick Barlow’s ingenious adaptation mirror the version now up at the Guthrie. Nonetheless, the execution by director Joel Sass and his crew is terrific — with particular praise deserved by lighting designer Barry Browning, sound designer Reid Rejsa, and set designer Richard Hoover. The hilarious shadow puppetry segment by Michael Sommers also brings down the house.
It’s probably no surprise that three of the four cast members — Agnew, Lichtscheidl and Seifert — have past associations with Theatre de la Jeune Lune, because the former company’s signature movement specialties are all over the performances. These are comedy clowns of the first order and they are perfectly complemented by Berdahl, who is the grounded center of the performance and the only actor who has a single role.
“The 39 Steps” has been called a throwaway show, but that’s always said as a compliment. As winter approaches, it’s a lift.