The setup: Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps is a breakneck farce that doesn't exactly parody the classic film and spy novel that inspired it -- it's more of a concept that makes fun of them as they are, taking every element that's a little weird or over-obvious or supremely early-20th-century British and pushing those coals right to the Newcastle of silliness.
Last winter, Arizona Theatre Company imported a deliciously precise and frenetic professional production of the show from Minnesota's Guthrie Theater. I was fascinated to see this season's community-theater version by Fountain Hills Theater, a company that, while on the small and low-budget side, tends to have a deft hand with comedies and farces in particular.
The execution: I'll admit that I didn't count the alleged 150 characters played by the four-person cast last time I saw this show. And Fountain Hills makes no such claim. (I read a bit of advance press that suggested this quartet covers about 40, a figure that comes close enough to the load of the two leads plus the 27 I counted on my fingers for the two "clown" performers -- it's hard to tell one briefly appearing cop or henchman from another.)
In any case, the quick-change work is pretty impressive, both keeping the plot (such as it is) clear and adding to the humor. A lovely perk of FH's venue is that all seats are relatively near the stage, which is also cozy -- and while audience members have a close-up view of some of the funniest business, director Peter J. Hill and his ensemble also manage several turns of sleight of hand that were jaw-dropping even from the second row. Kudos to the design team (Hill on the set, Ben Bozosich, Ross Collins, and Benoit Torrilhon on properties, Corinne Hawkins on costumes, and Todd Carrie on sound) for enabling much of the magic.
As reluctant hero Richard Hannay, Terry Gadaire wrestles with an English-Canadian accent that skitters all over the place, but his charm, confidence, and comic timing soon overshadow that issue. Deborah Ostreicher, playing the three ingenues, is, if anything, more adept.
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Roger Prenger and Michael Stewart play everybody else, and it's just about a miracle that they both come out alive at the end. The physical constraints of the space do slow down some of the myriad scene changes, and the occasional deliberate appearance of plucky stagehands dilutes the illusion a bit, but the packed audience was thoroughly entertained and amused (if a bit chatty), and the company seems to be exhilarated by accomplishing the impossible.
The verdict: If you can score a seat to this final weekend, you'll be at least a little wowed and giggly at this admirable 39 Steps. The cast and designs are especially strong.
Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps continues through Sunday, January 27, at 11445 North Saguaro Boulevard. Buy one of the few remaining tickets, $19 and $24, by calling 480-837-9661.