The Warehouse Theatre’s “39 Steps,” which opened Friday night, is a giddy romp, a breathlessly paced delight from beginning to end.
Director Chip Egan’s frothy and inventive staging of Patrick Barlow’s play, based on Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film noir, sparkles with witty and stylish performances by a quartet of some of the Upstate’s finest actors.
Christopher Joel Onken is Richard Hannay, a hapless Canadian who inadvertently gets mixed up in international intrigue in England and Scotland.
The other three actors (Debra Capps, Brock Koonce and Jason Shipman) fill in dozens of other roles in this fetching spy caper, which played to great acclaim a few years ago in London and on Broadway.
It’s a somewhat complex plot, closely tracking the script of Hitchcock’s film. Suffice it to say that Nazis are at the bottom of it all.
Much of the humor emerges from watching the Etch-A-Sketch clowns Koonce and Shipman shift identities — cops one moment, secret agents or dotty women’s underwear salesmen the next — often in the blink of an eye, with the quick change of hat and accent.
Using a bare minimum of props, the cast also is called on to recreate the special effects of Hitchcock’s movie — including a car chase and a foot pursuit above a speeding train — and that’s where things really get fun and daffy.
A few trunks become the train and a collection of chairs turn into the getaway car. The theatrical legerdemain of Egan and his cast is a sight to behold.
The production also makes gleeful use of Monty Python-esque shadow puppets and includes amusing references to Hitchcock, including “North by Northwest” crop dusters. Don’t blink or you’ll miss the brief on-screen cameo of Hitchcock himself.
Egan elicits sharp, vivid performances from his actors.
As Richard Hannay, Onken is all suave and devil-may-care affability. Particularly memorable is Onken’s zany, grandiloquent monologue (set to the rising strains of “Jerusalem” no less) toward the end of the play.
Capps plays the smoldering femme fatale Annabella with the right hint of melodrama and later offers an appealing wistfulness as the Glaswegian farm girl Margaret. Her alluring blonde Pamela, meanwhile, puts one in mind of the droll Chandlerism: “She was a blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.”
Koonce and Shipman often dominate the stage with their nimble comic virtuosity. Shipman is priceless as a pious Scottish farmer and Koonce shines particularly in his drag roles and as the automaton-like Mr. Memory.
The set, designed by Gary C. Hoff, is marvelous: an Art Deco-style theater.
For inspired silliness, it’s hard to be this must-see “39 Steps.” Performances continue through May 12. For tickets, call 864-235-6948.
Follow Paul Hyde’s live arts reviews on Twitter: @PaulHyde7. See Paul’s blog under “Entertainment” at greenvilleonline.com.