ST. PETERSBURG — With an exaggerated creak, two huge doors slowly swing open. Into the lighted space behind the false proscenium step two silent, formally dressed men. They preen and bustle, addressing their imaginary audience and removing the sheets that until now have covered just a few rude props: a door frame, a window frame, some ordinary boxes, a solitary lamp.
Finally these messengers wheel in a large wing chair, still draped. Could someone be in the chair under the drape? Maybe, but who knows?
The silent clowns exeunt.
So begins the brilliant stagecraft that underlies the hilarious and delightful production of Patrick Barlow's The 39 Steps, currently showing at St. Petersburg's American Stage.
Director Stephanie Gularte, in just her second production since becoming the company's producing artistic director, has understood and conveyed perfectly the reason for making a play out of a 70-year-old iconic movie by Alfred Hitchcock, itself based on a book published 20 years before that:
Books are words; films are images and sounds. But live theater is so often about the limitations of space and time. The audience must fill in the blanks. This act is called imagination. Those who can credibly invoke it are artists indeed.
Beyond the pratfalls, puns, sly cultural references and outlandish escapes that make this play so entertaining, there lies an uncanny ability to involve the audience in the joke.
In one scene, the four actors must drive a car along a bumpy mountain road. The only physical props at their disposal are a few stacked wooden boxes and a disembodied steering wheel. But thanks to Gularte's adroit design staff, they also have sound and light and clever costumes — and an ingenious talent for ensemble pantomime. I don't think I've had so much fun on an imaginary car ride since I was a kid.
The 39 Steps is a send-up of themes and characters we know and love — the spy caper, the femme fatale, the farmer's daughter, the evil villain in the mansion high on a hill. It is also a spoof on the nature of theater itself — thus the many examples of props being almost as important as the characters themselves.
Jed Peterson, who last appeared on this stage as the legendary ballet star in Nureyev's Eyes, plays Richard Hannay, a bored and disaffected 1930s Londoner who finds himself drafted into an outlandish spy caper by a femme fatale who has conned herself into his flat. When she collapses in his living room with an oversized chef's knife stuck in her back, he realizes he must assume her mission of locating the one man who can prevent the secret of Britain's air defenses from leaving the country.
Juliana Davis plays the humorously accented Annabella Schmidt, as well as the farmer's daughter and the uptight blonde who is determined to turn Hannay in to the authorities until, well, she isn't. Their bickering when they find themselves handcuffed together and slogging through the Scottish bogs and moors is as familiar and funny as anything in the play. Like Shakespeare's Beatrice and Benedick, we know they must end up in love, because that's what the history of theater has trained us to expect.
As in Charles Ludlam's The Mystery of Irma Vep, whose tone this play resembles, every actor except Peterson must play multiple characters. Joey Panek and Richard B. Watson, billed simply as Clown #1 and Clown #2, carry the bulk of this. Their costume and wig changes, sometimes in the space of a single scene, are another part of the theatrical spoof. But they also bring a variety of physical and vocal mannerisms that make each of their 145 or so characters distinct.
You will laugh loudly and often, I promise.