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PHOTO BY LEE A. BUTZ Left to right: Steve Burns, Anthony Reimer and William Connell in PSF's PHOTO BY LEE A. BUTZ Left to right: Steve Burns, Anthony Reimer and William Connell in PSF's "The 39 Steps."

THEATER REVIEWS Take 'The 39 Steps' to comedy at Pa. Shakespeare Fest

Wednesday, June 26, 2013 by PAUL WILLISTEIN pwillistein@tnonline.com in Focus

The Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival (PSF) production of "The 39 Steps" yields nonstop laughter in a slapstick sendup of the classic Alfred Hitchcock film.

Hilarity ensues from the moment that four actors in multiple roles so many I lost count step on stage in the farce adapted by Patrick Barlow from the novel of John Buchan and the 1935 Hitchcock film.

At the conclusion of "The 39 Steps," through July 14, Schubert Theatre, Labuda Center for the Arts, DeSales University, Center Valley, I still didn't know what precisely the madcap show's title represents, but I know there are no missteps on the way to rip-roaring fun.

The success of the play owes in large part to quick-witted direction by Matt Pfeiffer, the go-to-guy for multiple character role shows and fast-paced romps at PSF, where he directed "The Compleat Wrks of Wllm Shkspr Abridged" and "Dracula."

Pfeiffer pulls sight gags, visual puns, word puns and sound puns from his bag of tricks. The production of the brisk comedy (49-mins. first act, 45-mins. second act, opening night, June 21) is genius and sheer entertainment. Pfeiffer and the cast do so much with so little.

The concept is that of an homage to detective noir films you might see on TV's TCM channel. The production is true to its cinematic roots. There are also touches of Monty Python, "Austin Powers" and The Firesign Theatre.

The setting is London and Scotland in 1935. Scenic Designer Samina Vieth has all the right touches in the minimalist set, with suggestions of a theater, a London mansion and Scottish castle.

Lighting Designer Thom Weaver paints the stage in beams of light that focus our attention and in other instances effectively distracts us.

Sound Designer Matthew Given adds to the laser-like intensity and specificity, as well, quoting from Hitchcock films ("North By Northwest," most memorably) and the "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" TV show (1955 - '65).

Costume Designer Lisa Zinni selects just the right garment, or article of clothing, for each character in what must be like a juggling act for the actors. (There is some actual juggling.)

Even in the land of Shakespeare, where the play's the thing, it's up to the actors to breathe life into it, and so they do with precise timing, an amazing array of accents and a variety of body language and facial expressions. Voice and text coach is Dudley Knight.

William Connell (Richard Hannay) has the play's straight part in that he plays one character, with "a very attractive pencil mustache" as a voiceover notes. Connell is the play's constant presence, and his solid and sure-footed acting in the midst of a chaos of characters surrounding him is no easy task.

Steve Burns, identified in the play as Clown 1, and Anthony Reimer, as Clown 2, switch from role to role literally with the doff of a hat. Each assumes a distinctive character in the blink of an eye.

Burns disappears into his characters so remarkably you don't realize he's the same actor. His accents alone are amazing. He's the one who juggles, by the way.

Reimer stands out in his roles and that makes his performance all the more impressive.

Genevieve Perrier plays three roles: Annabella Schmidt, Margaret and Pamela. As Schmidt, the mysterious German agent, she is especially convincing and hilarious.

The zany-brainy PSF "The 39 Steps" is at once ridiculous and brilliant. Just don't ask me to explain the meaning of the title.