Culture 2 Go

Thrilled to death

The 39 Steps

Through Oct. 10 at Orlando

Shakespeare Theater

812 E. Rollins St.



The 39 Steps, a 1935 British suspense film directed by Alfred Hitchcock, was loosely based on John Buchan's 1915 adventure novel of the same name. The plot of the movie (which was shifted from pre-World War I to pre-World War II Britain) concerned an espionage ring intent on secreting important military information out of England and a ne'er-do-well hero caught up in a desperate attempt to clear himself of a murder charge. Freely adapting the film's characters and dialogue, but cutting the cast of dozens to only four actors, playwright Patrick Barlow turned the thriller on its head, creating a two-act farce, replete with clownish sight gags and a tongue-in-cheek insouciance that mocks and celebrates the genre's patriotic, stiff-upper-lip sensibility.

Actor Spencer Plachy, in his first appearance with the Orlando Shakes, stars as the character Richard Hannay, the bemused protagonist who gets caught up in the dastardly doings while spending an enjoyable evening at a London music hall. Shots ring out during the performance, and soon Hannay is squiring a dark-haired, thickly accented femme fatale — one of the several roles splendidly played by actress Deanna Gibson — to his flat in order to protect her from two skulking figures lurking outside on the dark street corner. Unfortunately, Hannay's charge is quickly dispatched and he is forced to flee to Scotland in order to solve the crime and unearth the plot that threatens the homeland.

As Hannay sets off on his mission, he must evade the authorities, find helpful accomplices and search for the villains who are out to capture or kill him. In Barlow's script, all of the above are portrayed by the three other performers in the cast, with the bulk of the parts relegated to "Clown 1" and "Clown 2," brilliantly depicted by Brad DePlanche and Brandon Roberts. Watching these two extraordinarily talented actors switch roles, change costumes and voices — sometimes in the literal blink of an eye — is the production's most agreeable entertainment, and director Jim Helsinger has allowed them to show off every comedic shtick in their repertoires.

My only small cavil: Never make a parody longer than the original. While the movie clocks in at a brisk 86 minutes, the show runs about two hours. And even though DePlanche and Roberts are terrifically funny, the same bits lose some of their effectiveness the fifth or sixth time around.

Seasons of the witch

The Crucible

Through Oct. 9 at Theatre Downtown

2113 N. Orange Ave.



Salem, Mass., a quaint New England town, will forever live in infamy as the venue of the 1692-1693 witch trials. A ghastly miscarriage of justice that caused the deaths of at least 20 souls found guilty of consorting with the Devil, the pseudo-legal proceedings that took place in the Bay Colony exposed the dark underside of the Puritan community's religious beliefs, as well as the population's propensity to succumb to mass hysteria, revenge-tinged politics and rank superstition.

In 1953, playwright Arthur Miller elaborated upon the history and actual personages of the period in The Crucible, a work that utilized the themes of intolerance and character assassination as an allegory for the Army-McCarthy hearings, promulgated by Congress to root out Communists and leftist sympathizers in U.S. government and society. Today, it is commonly accepted that what became known as "McCarthyism" was a modern version of the centuries-old Salem witch hunts.

Theatre Downtown's artistic director Frank Hil-genberg has staged a powerful production of Miller's play, taut with drama and meaning. It's suffused with the idea that unfounded accusations and misguided religiosity has wrought terrible havoc upon the lives of innocent men and women, and can still wreak havoc in the present and future. Even though, as a society, we are not now going through as intense a period of national paranoia as was experienced in the Cold War atmosphere of the 1950s, the basic message of The Crucible still resonates with chilling effect.

The play is well-served by outstanding performances throughout. Special mentions go to Jamie B. Cline as John Proctor, the honest man who would not sacrifice his good name on the alter of political/religious correctness; Kristin Collins as his upright and loving wife, Elizabeth; Tim Bass as Rev. John Hale, whose conscience finally persuaded him to defy the corrupt justice of the High Court; James Cassidy as deputy governor Danforth, the avenging angel and supercilious arm of the law; and Hilty Bowen and Sarah Andrew as Abigail Williams and Mary Warren, respectively, two teenage village girls whose guile and immaturity brought the cruel weight of injustice down upon the heads of their elders.

The Crucible is a provocative and important work and should be seen by all those who wish to investigate the shadowy aspects of our humanity and the sometimes dark facets of our national character.

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