Apr 7, 2011

[Theater] The 39 Steps (Repertory Philippines)

The 39 Steps (Repertory Philippines)When you come to appreciate the madcap humor of Monty Python, that comes with a very specific meaning to other people. Monty Python humor is an odd mix of the witty and sometimes intellectual mashed up with slapstick silliness and a healthy amount of lewd toilet humor. It's undeniably British and it's the kind of humor that still makes your brain work just enough to keep things interesting but not too much to the point that it gets tiring. At least that's how I view it - it's not exactly to capture all that is Monty Python in just so many words, quite frankly.

So when I first read the synopsis for this play and how it was being billed as a play "with a dash of Monty Python", I have to admit that I was sincerely interested. Even just a touch of that kind of comedy should translate pretty well on the stage - after all Spamalot has been a rather smashing success on Broadway. While I wasn't expecting something on that level, I was hoping it would at least be funny from a general perspective. Is that asking too much?

Instead, well, I suppose it could have been worse. But more importantly, it could have been a heck of a lot better, too. While originally this post was supposed to appear a lot earlier in my blogging pipeline, the quality of the play had me opting to post reviews of other plays that were significantly more entertaining with an undeniable level of quality in their creation.

The 39 Steps is meant to be a comedy despite the Alfred Hitchcock movie's original tone. The play was created by Patrick Barlow based on the original concept of a 2-man version of the story by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon. The local production was staged by Repertory Philippines and was directed by Ana Abad Santos. It ran from March 4-20, 2011 and thankfully no announcements of a repeat run have been made at the time of this posting.

Following the original story of both the book and the movie, the play centers around Richard Hannay (Michael Williams) who begins the story by watching a performance by one Mr. Memory - a man who claims to have a perfect photographic memory. But when a fight breaks out in the theater, he finds himself holding the hand of Annabella Schmidt (Lizza Infante). Subsequently taking her back to his flat at her request, Richard then finds himself somewhat involved in her attempts to evade assassins trying to kill her. She in turn is a spy who has discovered a plot to steal British military secrets by a man that can only be identified by his lack of most of his little finger.

But when he discovers Annabella dead the next day, Richard must now flee for his life while trying to both evade the assassins while trying to figure out the evil plot. It's a bit of a madcap chase that starts in London and leads him to Scotland and back again with numerous encounters along the way.

The real potential for fun here is how all the other roles in the play (as they appeared in the book and the movie) are mostly portrayed by the two "clowns", in this case Rem Zamora and Juliene Mendoza. Lizza Infante also lends a hand in portraying most of the other female roles - or at least the ones that get somewhat romantically involved with the character of Richard Hanney.

The play suffered from a lot of problems, at least from the show that we watched. And I don't think that it was an isolate incident given it was one of the latter shows, which is when you expect that the cast has pretty much gotten the groove of the play and thus should be past the more basic technical errors.

First, the music and sound effects felt oddly timed. While I'm sure they were going for a sort of "stopped record" kind of sound effect when they'd try to end their "zinger" music for comedic punchlines, the end result wasn't very effective and it sounded more like the sound file got accidentally cut. At other times, the musical cues felt off or ill-timed and thus the full comedic effect for key moments was certainly lost. And you know that comedy is all about timing and to get this wrong killed a lot of the tone.

Then we get to actual stage direction. There were a lot of moments that didn't come across very well because of a combination of actor awkwardness and odd methods of portraying a scene. For example, the big slapstick police chase on the train wasn't very clear since it seemed like they were climbing on the inside of the train with the lady right alongside them instead of them being on the outside. A lot of the efforts to depict a kind of Keystone Kops kind of chase sequences were also poorly done and instead seemed more like local comedy instead of British ones. There were a lot of timing issues here and there when jokes came at the wrong time or were badly delivered and you'd kind of think that making sure the jokes came across right would have been the top concern for the director.

At the center of the play is Michael Williams as Richard Hannay, and the man can't quite do comedy. Clearly he is a skilled dramatic actor, but that doesn't mean he can automatically play the "straight man" in a comedic scenario. And given the fact that he is in pretty much every single scene, him not working comedically means the play ends up being not funny.

Group shot of the Monty Python crew in 1969Image via WikipediaOverall, the actors needed to really push themselves out of their comfort zones in order to effectively pull off this play. Monty Python does have a lot of slapstick and absurd scenarios, but the reason it all works is because (1) the Pythons know how to play out straight man comedies, (2) no matter how crazy it gets, they also act is if things are perfectly normal and (3) their general willingness to make fools of themselves. While the two clowns in the play did a decent job of letting go of their inhibitions for the sake of comedy (I especially loved the multiple hats scene on the train) Williams and Infante were still being more serious actors rather than comedic ones, and this took away a lot from the performance.

The first act dragged so much so that a friend of ours watching the same performance actually fell asleep! And he's a major Python fan, too. The second act was definitely much better, but not enough to salvage the play as a whole. One of the things that helped was a greater willingness to break the fourth wall in the second act - something they should have capitalized on more from the very beginning.

I did love the highly dynamic set design, which I assume comes from the original play. Having the actors themselves manipulate the stage elements as they did was no simple feat and trying to delivery comedy at the same time was even more difficult. At least in this regard they generally delivered well - if only the acting could have matched.

I can understand, conceptually, how this play could be billed as a Monty Python flavored piece. And I can perfectly appreciate why it won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Comedy and the Drama Desk Award for Unique Theatrical Experience. Thus it made it even more disappointing that such a potentially good play was mishandled and poorly delivered.

The 39 Steps could have been so much more but clearly it was too much for Repertory Philippines to handle at this time. Perhaps with more practice and a better understanding of British comedy (or comedy in general), they might deliver a better version in the future. This staging of the play gets 1.5 poorly managed Hitchcock references in the play out of a possible 5.

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