The 39 Steps

Not one misstep in Play With Your Food’s season-ending production

Photos by Mark Lentine
From left to right: Frank Jaramillo, Shenn Sellers, Paola Cifuentes, Michael Tennant and Rebecca Reber in Patrick Barlow’s adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock’s’ The 39 Steps.

■ By Mark Lentine / Contributed

Any connoisseur of Alfred Hitchcock films can tell you that other than “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,’ “Hitch” never made comedy, and with good reason; he had no flair for it.
The 39 Steps is the stuff of legends. The British Film Institute ranked it as the fourth greatest British film of the 20th century; how, then, could anyone turn one of Hitchcock’s early signature suspense films into a comedy? Further, how could any actor even begin to give a comic turn to Robert Donat’s deft performance in that film? Director/actor Michael Tennant answers these questions, and then some.
I was more than a bit skeptical that any Hitchcock film could be turned into comedy. It turns out that my skepticism was unfounded. This play “sees” the comedy, and then ups the ante by adding slapstick and screwball comedic elements into the mix, adding even a bit of Shakespearean Scottish-Moor silliness to the proceedings just to keep the audience on its toes. I sat watching, shaking my head at a dizzying pace.
For any devotee of classic films, “The 39 Steps” is a staple; it is among the earliest Hitchcock sound films to intertwine suspense with a quirky offbeat love story. Tennant and his crew manage to exceed any expectations one could have by turning the story on its ear and throwing in bits of lunacy when they’re least expected. Actors play multiple parts with wardrobe changes happening on-stage; a would-be bed becomes a would-be car (complete with a steering wheel taken off a wall); Shakespearean-inspired innkeepers suddenly appear, and disappear.

All is not perfect between Pamela, played by Paola Cifuentes, and Richard Hanney, played by Michael Tennant.

If it’s sheer madness for the audience, one can only imagine how the actors keep it together. All-in-all, five actors conjure up at least 20 different characters, with the bulk of the work going to Shen Sellers.
The evening opened with an hour-long mini-concert from local singer, Mandy McKelvey. Tennant then takes the stage, does some quick emcee work, thanks the singer, and before our eyes turns into a poor, typical Hitchcockian “everyman in a world gone mad” Richard Hannay, the protagonist of the play. From the very beginning, Tennant plays his Hannay as an everyman whose life is going nowhere-fast.
However, Hannay’s life goes somewhere very fast the second “Pamela” enters the picture. Pamela is played to absolute perfection by Paola Cifuentes who is as much firefly as actress. Every time Cifuentes steps on stage, the lights seem brighter and the pace quickens considerably. She is an actress of great depth, seemingly able to handle light comedy and suspense without missing a beat.
Sultry Rebecca Reber appears as an announcer, a Scotland Yard Inspector, and a Scottish hag, and makes it all work without breaking a sweat. Reber has a polish that speaks of starring in larger roles and bigger stages, and still she handles every part with a nuanced touch, punching every line perfectly.
Little else matters when Frank Jaramillo is on-stage; contortionist, dancer, fool, actor, emcee. All eyes go to Jaramillo the moment he comes on, and he always comes on strong, and leaves an impression.
And in the middle of it all stands Tennant’s beleaguered Richard Hannay. Tennant downplays the role to absolute perfection. A lesser actor might have tried a bit of mugging in this role, but it’s Tennant’s very calm manner in the eye of the storm that sets him apart; he is the glue that holds the production together. In the hands of someone with less confidence, this part could have spelled disaster. Tennant knows his role and delivers flawlessly.
Rounding out the proceedings by bringing in a generator’s worth of energy is Shen Sellers, playing a dozen different roles, including milkman, salesman, paper boy, policeman, pilot and professor.
Intermission featured wonderful “speed artist” Mattea Roberts, who quickly fashioned a painting in about 10 minutes, which was then auctioned off before Act 2.
While this play could stand on its own, one should really catch the 1935 Hitchcock film to truly appreciate what this cast pulls off with minimal sets and demanding on-stage energy.
For more information, call (951) 663-8491 or visit playwithyourfoodhemet.com.

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