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Center Stage: Rep scores big in Wall Street Journal…again

By Staff | Feb 9, 2011

Not only has the Florida Rep gotten a sterling review for the third time in the Wall Street Journal but, this year. the Rep was cited as the top repertory company in the country by acclaimed drama critic Terry Teachout. Also, in this latest Rep offering, Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Thirty Nine Steps” (a hilarious, fast-paced, spoof on whodunits), the Rep — in a master stroke of theater genius — has teamed up with the Orlando Shakespeare Company as co-producer, utilizing this company’s director, Jim Helsinger. Also accompanying Helsinger to Fort Myers are two fine Orlando Shakespeare Company actors — Brad DePlanche and Brandon Roberts, both making auspicious Florida Rep debuts.

“The 39 Steps” is an absurd, wildly enjoyable theatrical send-up of Hitchcock’s 1935 film of the same name. The play was adapted for the stage by Patrick Barlow, becoming a four-actor comic spoof that utilizes the power of imaginative stage craft and extremely energetic, inventive, mad cap, actors to play up the humor that Hitchcock introduced in his take-off film. Speaking of the fine actors, included in this all-star cast are Florida Rep regulars Deanna Gibson in the multiple roles of Annabella Schmidt, Pamela/Margaret, and Spencer Plachy in the starring role of Richard Hannay.

Patrick Barlow’s adaptation explores the whole genre of stiff upper lip heroic exploits, and this self-conscious theatrical spoof works hilariously well all the way around, sending the audience into gales of helpless laughter. Meanwhile, Helsinger’s frenetically paced and visually inventive staging drives the plot forward with great style in a bewildering succession of equally funny scenes and characters.

This spy adventure begins when a debonair gentleman-adventurer Richard Hannay (Plachy) discovers that a foreign enemy spy ring called The Thirty Nine Steps is trying to smuggle scientific-military secrets out of Britain, He sets out to stop them single-handedly. But on top of that, the police are on the hunt for Hannay as the prime suspect in the murder of a beautiful, female spy. This show is chock full of groan-producing puns and allusions to Hitchcock film — “Psycho,” “Vertigo,” “North by Northwest,” “Rear Window,” “Dial M for Murder,” to name a few. As part of this mayhem, as in most Hitchcock films, the filmmaker makes cameo appearance, when he pops up in a shadow play portraying Hannay’s escape from bumbling police officers.

The show could fool you into believing there’s a big cast, a lot of scenery and many locales; when in truth it is accomplished with a few props, multiple costume changes and lot of inventive stage business. For instance, when the characters are wandering the windy moors, they flap their coats incessantly; for an escape out a “rear window,” Hannay steps backwards through a square frame that he’s holding; a sequence atop a speeding train reminds you that clever staging doesn’t need to be accurate, just suggestive. In point of fact, the fun of this show is its inventiveness.

Charming and debonair Richard Hannay is played to the hilt by Plachy; he can be deadpan, while being devilishly handsome… even though he’s quite full of himself as both narrator and hero. In fact, Plachy seems to channel a whole tradition of gentlemanly heroes — even “Dudley DoRight of the Canadian Mounties.”

Gibson plays the several romantic heroines of this story; she manages to call to mind Hitchcock’s typical lady-like ice princess, the blonde in white gloves and hat, Grace Kelly. Nevertheless Gibson manages to express her own special take on the classic female “love interest” genus — including the exotic Mata Hari secret agent — as well as the wistful, innocent, country girl with the heart of gold.

The rest of the cast is comprised of the two fine actors from Orlando, Brad DePlanche and Brandon Roberts. These two zoom along full-throttle, exhibiting chameleon-like gender bender virtuosity, playing all the other parts, including bumbling policemen, enemy agents, local Highlanders, puffed-up Nazi villains, the robot-like Mr. Memory and his hyper assistant.

DePlanche and Roberts, listed as Clown 1 and Clown 2, play not only young/old, male/female, animate/inanimate, but change characters speedily, sometimes right before your eyes, flipping from a Bobbie’s hat to a bowler or from overalls to a trench coat just by turning around; you name it and these guys will take it on with comic aplomb, becoming a showcase for physical humor at its best. Bravo!

Part of the joy of this show is seeing the bewildering succession of sets, props and costumes which are done with such style and panache that they never become tiresome. We have Set Designer Ray Recht and Costume designer Denise R. Warner to thank for these inspired creations.

With such a barrage of troubling and depressing news coming at us daily from the media, my suggestion would be to follow Richard Hannay’s advice in the opening scene when he resolves to find a diversion from his gloomy ennui by escaping to the theater and seeing something “ridiculous and delightful.” My advice is, if you’ve had it with all the gloom and doom coming from the news pundits, go see “The Thirty Nine Steps” — it’s sure to fill the bill.

You can start by phoning the Florida Rep’s box office 332-4488 reserving your seat at this laugh-a-minute spoof which only plays ’til Feb. 26. Just remind ’em, Marsha sent you when you call.

Now, on to my next bit of theater news… In case you’re unaware of the wonderful Laboratory Theater of Florida performing at the Sidney and Berne Davis Art Center right adjacent to the Arcade, let me clue you in. This company presents some really astonishing live theater productions in this remarkable space.

I recently attended an attention-grabbing performance of Sam Shepard’s Pulitzer Prize -winning comedy classic, “True West.” This play is about two estranged brothers, Austin and Lee, representing two sides of the American lifestyle — one sibling is sophisticated, urban, educated, ambitious and successful; the other is an alienated con man, an outcast, raw, wild, uneducated, and violent. As the play progresses the two characters exchange roles, revealing that each represents two faces of the same coin. This is one of Shepard’s most interesting plays, where he gives us a taste of what it feels like to be two-sided. The production, like the play itself, is fascinating as well as disturbing — the stuff that make live theater so intensely interesting and exciting.

Sorry if you missed this production, but you do have another opportunity to see the Laboratory Theater perform by putting down these dates — April 6-9 and April 13-16 — then ordering tickets to see the Laboratory Theater’s production of an abridged version of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” Phone the box office at 333-1933 to make your reservation in support of this fabulous live theater company in downtown Fort Myers.