I’ve made a personal commitment to try to get to more community theatre shows this year. The last one, ALMOST MAINE by Village Players, was a delight (and I’ve heard their STEEL MAGNOLIAS is really good, too!) and so I’d like to see what else our local amateurs are producing.
So when I heard that our Billy Bibbit (Nik Pajic) from ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST was doing THE 39 STEPS with Sunset Players, I figured it was good one to check out. Though I don’t really care for the show itself (to do it right, you really have to go big or go home and a lot of people aren’t brave enough), I really liked Nik’s work when I shared the stage with him and figured . . . why not!
The Sunset Players appear to have their act together. They had a nice raffle (still running, by the way, so when you go see the show take extra money), a very cool space, and a gigantic stage crew for this show. I got there early and will call wasn’t ready quite yet but the folks were friendly and gracious and I appreciated the warm welcome.
THE 39 STEPS is based on an Alfred Hitchcock film, but what the film brought in suspense the play makes up for in broad, stupid comedy. I can remember when I saw the touring show at the Aronoff and the lights came at intermission, my friend announced “THIS IS AWFUL!” I didn’t think it was bad (though I couldn’t hear it so well), but I know why she hated it. She doesn’t appreciate The Three Stooges or Tom and Jerry cartoons. One must have a love of slapstick to truly appreciate “The 39 Steps.”
It appeared to me that the cast understood this and played it up broadly. Pajic plays “Hannay,” a handsome leading man type who finds himself caught up in a spy thriller against his will when a beautiful woman (Merritt Beischel) fires a gun at the theatre. Beischel, whom I first saw in SEMINAR, embodies all three of her female roles in the show with deadpan seriousness. I suspect she has a dry sense of humor in real life. Her death scene – and Hannay’s awkward escape from the chair in which she died on top of him in had the audience in stitches.
Then there are “the clowns.” Peter Merten (who I saw in ALMOST, MAINE) and John Funcheon (who I met while watching THE TWENTIETH CENTURY WAY at the KNOW . . . he recognized me as Chief Bromden and was kind enough to introduce himself) play dozens of characters including a couple of very-bearded ladies. Merten has the best moment in the entire show when he plays a professor with an affinity for cats . . . you really have to see it to believe it . . . that was so funny it almost distracted from the plot, causing some of those around me to lose the story. But really, the story is secondary to the sight gags here anyway. Everyone was dying with laughter, including a struggling-not-to-break Pajic. And again, that was totally OK, because it made the moment that much funnier. This show has many fourth-wall moments and I wish that the cast – especially Beischel in the first instance – would play that up more. I actually thought she was really upset with the tech crew at first until I remembered that this show is chock full of gags like that.
In fact, that would be my only “note” as it were for the entire cast. Go big or go home. I imagine as they settle in more as the run continues this week they’ll be quite comfortable with the physical moments. They were good, but this cast has potential to be great. I know that Pajic has been filming scenes in “Carol” and perhaps they didn’t rehearse as often as they would have liked due to his feature film debut, but overall I thought they gelled together nicely. Also, there’s lots of accents in this show and in a room like Dunham Arts Center, where the acoustics echo (yes, women in the balcony having a conversation, your voices carry too) so its important that diction be a priority. But overall, this is a fun night at the theatre and I guarantee you’ll leave smiling . . . and maybe wondering what exactly did I just see. What you saw, friend, is a very funny comedic play produced by a group that is trying very very hard.
THE 39 STEPS runs through May 17th. Don’t forget to enter the raffle; Sunset Players might just be the most ambitious community theatre group in town as they tackle NEXT TO NORMAL soon and start next year off with THE ADDAMS FAMILY and end with CLYBOURNE PARK! Tickets and more information is available here.