by Shirley Lorraine
A Mad Cap Romp in High Gear
Santa Paula Theater Center has pulled out all the stops for their last production of the 2023 season. The 39 Steps, by Patrick Barlow, garnered the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Comedy in 2007 as well as numerous other awards and nominations. It is a fast-paced delight featuring well over 100 quirky characters, all portrayed by seven highly capable and skilled actors.
Where else could you get vaudeville, a mystery set in bonny Scotland, people becoming props and a hefty dash of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the early years, all packed into one whirling dervish of an evening? Why, Santa Paula Theater Center, of course!
Director Richard Kuhlman has assembled a cast that is a marvel to witness, tightly choreographing the action while also allowing room for (and probably encouraging) improvisation. The staging is a parody adapted from the 1915 novel by John Buchan and the 1935 film by Alfred Hitchcock. But there’s no Hitchcockian suspense here. This production will leave you laughing frequently and wondering what they could possibly do next.
John Webber leads the story as Richard Hannay, who becomes entangled in a spy operation with a mysterious woman who is murdered in his flat. Taylor Lee Marr plays an alter-ego version of Richard Hannay, with the two changing places often to illustrate various points.
The other five actors, Leslie Upson, Sarah Boughton, Martha Benavides, Carlita Mead and Tom Hall, carry the entire rest of the very large cast of characters. Most memorably, Upson plays Annabella Schmidt (the murderee), Boughton is the flighty Pamela, Benavides embodies Professor Jordan. Professor Jordan’s wife is played with glee by Carlita Mead and Tom Hall gives a stellar turn as Mr. Memory. All take on their various roles with total abandon, adding to the overall hilarity.
I particularly enjoyed wondering what antics would come forth next. In true Python manner, some of the rapid-fire chicanery flew past me like a rocket. Due to the mile-a-minute pace of the first act, I did feel the second act suffered from a slight case of an old Chinese malady, On Too Long. Perhaps I just ran out of energy on their behalf. Nonetheless, it was a wild ride full of surprises, humor and rolling r’s (oh, those Scots!).
Oh, and yes, in the end we do learn the significance of the 39 steps which seemed anticlimactic given the frantic action leading to it. Amidst all the melee, the explanation seemed rather ordinary.
A clever and creative opening had the cast all on stage giving the pre-show audience notes (exit locations, intermission, etc.) which led seamlessly into the play’s action and invited the audience to be an integral part of the evening. A nice change which worked quite well for this production.
The 39 Steps runs through December 17 at which time the cast and crew will have fully earned a restful holiday before the 2024 season begins. Keep a bookmark on the Center’s website to find out what is in store. www.santapaulatheatercenter.org .