The 39 Steps-2

The 39 Steps–HVSF-style

The 39 Steps-2

There’s a laugh-riot going on in the Hudson Valley, cleverly done with magnificently-talented actors. While I thought I was headed to a predictable performance of The 39 Steps, I had forgotten it would be performed by the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival (HVSF) players. And once you take your seat and watch the initial antics of the stage hands/actors prepping the stage, you’re reminded that this is a wonderful place, and that you’ll be thoroughly entertained for the next two hours or so.

The HVSF home on the grounds of the Boscobel estate in Garrison provides not your ordinary stage and backdrop. A large circus tent has been erected for the season, with one side of the tent opened for the actors to enter and exit, and also for the audience to watch the setting sun across the river at West Point. There is always a chuckle when the introductory statements are made about flashes and video equipment, and lastly, that “in case of an emergency, we have this LARGE OPENING in the tent to rush through.”

The World War II spy drama, The 39 Steps as directed by Alfred Hitchcock, was a big hit in the 1930’s. And so that was what I expected – a suspenseful war drama. It was a delight to discover that this version, this time with Russell Treyz directing, was from the 2006 comedic adaptation by British actor, funny man and playwright Patrick Barlow, who by the way won several awards for the work. In the hands of the HVSF, now in its 26th year, it seemed a match made in heaven. Because if you knew the HVSF, you know that nothing is predictable.

The stage and how the actors maneuver their bodies and props is a show in itself. Two stage hands/actors in black coveralls dash about the bare ground, moving three large steamer trunks as needed. The trunks may be pushed together for a bed in one scene, positioned to resemble a train car in another, and then an automobile, or a platform for a magic act depending on need. When a phone needed to ring, the stagehand (Marianna Caldwell) would say, “brinnnng, brinnnng.” When a door needed to be squeaky, the other stagehand (Jack Macklie) would mumble squeaky sounds.

The 39 Steps involves Richard Hannay’s innocent involvement in a spy mission, a murder, and frantic heroics to protect England’s air defense during the pre-WWII era. The handsome and “why isn’t he in the movies,” Richard Ercole plays Hannay, who we meet in scene one bemoaning his boring life, only to get caught up with the Marlene Dietrich-like, Annabella Schmidt and her spy mission. Performed by the talented Gabra Zackman who shows a flair for comedic timing, Schnmidt and Hannay share some very funny dialogue. One hilarious scene requires Hannay and Schmidt to escape evil spies by climbing out the window. But, you see, there’s no window, there isn’t even a wall. Stagehand Jack holds a picture frame up high that the actors wrestle through to the laughter of the audience. In another scene, the stagehands/actors have to create the bogs and swamps of Scotland for another action scene, and that has to be seen to be truly appreciated.

Last but definitely not least, kudos to Jason O’Connell and Wesley Mann, two favorite HVSF players who portray everyone else in the play. Literally. Whether a Scottish farmer, his odd-ball wife, a British policeman, a train conductor, and various spies, they bring them – no matter the gender – expertly to life, with hilarious results.

The most fun of a HVSF performance is watching the camaraderie among the players, and the obvious joy they have in what they do. It’s no wonder then that their audience numbers have grown tremendously over the last quarter century, from just over two hundred at their very first performance to 37,000 in 2010!

HVSF is dedicated to producing plays with an “economy of style that focuses its energy and resources on script, actors and audience,” according to Terrence O’Brien, founding artistic director. In addition to The 39 Steps, the 2012 season includes Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and Love’s Labours Lost, which O’Brien says “challenges ourselves and our audiences to take a fresh look at what is essential in Shakespeare’s plays.”

For more information on the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, visit, or phone 845-265-9575. Their repertory seasons runs through September 2. Boscobel is located in Garrison, NY, and Metro North provides frequent service to Cold Spring from points south and north. Call 1-800 Metro-Info for information, or visit Metro North online. Taxi service for the short trip from the Cold Spring train station to Boscobel. Advance reservations through the box office required!

Photos by William Marsh
1. Gabra Zackman (Woman), Richard Ercole (Richard Hannay)
2. Wesley Mann (Clown 2), Jason O’Connell (Clown 1)
3. Front L to R: Marianna Caldwell (Stage Hand) Jason O’Connell (Clown 1), Wesley Mann (Clown 2), Jack Mack (Stage Hand) Backrow L to R: Gabra Zackman (Woman), Richard Ercole (Richard Hannay)

Hudson Valley writer, MJ Hanley-Goff will be reviewing Love’s Labour’s Lost and Romeo and Juliet for Woman Around Town. Look for her reviews in the coming days.

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