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Monday, January 24, 2011

'39 Steps,' 'Body Detective' come off without a Hitch

The kids in the audience won’t get the reference in The Center for Puppetry Arts’ The Body Detective when a rotund silhouette appears, accompanied by the whimsical strains of Charles Gounod's “Funeral March of a Marionette.” Their parents probably can’t name that tune, either, but grown-ups will almost certainly make the connection with suspense director Alfred Hitchcock. The whimsical music and the shadow of Hitchcock’s plump profile served as the introduction to the old “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” TV series and became such a familiar piece of pop iconography, you can recognize it even if you never saw the show.

By coincidence (… or is it?), the Center’s revival of The Body Detective’s coincides with Theatre in the Square’s The 39 Steps, a giddy Hitchcock homage. Playwright Patrick Barlow adapted 39 Steps based on the unflappable English director’s 1935 hit (as well as John Buchan’s original novel). The 39 Steps and The Body Detective both frolic in thriller-genre styles so highly esteemed that audiences will get the jokes even if they don't know the originals first-hand.

In 1935, Hitchcock established many of his cinematic signatures with The 39 Steps. Debonair hero Richard Hannay — played by Robert Donat in the film and Jason MacDonald at Theatre in the Square — becomes a wrongfully accused fugitive after stumbling into a murderous conspiracy ahead of World War II. Between The 39 Steps’ man-on-the-run set pieces, Hitchcock delivered sparkling dialogue and sexy flirtations. Barlow’s play, directed by Clint Thornton, just cranks up the comedy and dials down the suspense.

A Canadian stuck in an English rut, Hannay takes in a night at the theater, only to see a London Palladium show cut short by a gunshot. A Teutonic mystery woman (Catherine Dyer, in the first of her three roles) invites herself back to Hannay’s place and drops hints about stolen R.A.F. secrets and something called “The 39 Steps.” Imagine Madeline Kahn as Lily Von Shtupp or Chloris Leachman as Frau Blucher, and you’ll get a sense of Dyer’s flamboyant accent. When the spy lady catches a knife in the back, Hannay tries to stop the real culprits and clear his name.

The play presents the story as if it’s being rehearsed on a 1930s film set, but doesn’t let the cinematic gimmick constrain the actors. Theatre in the Square delights in The 39 Steps as a fresh variation on Charles Ludlam’s oft-produced, quick-change play The Mystery of Irma Vep. Bryan Mercer and Scott Warren, identified in the program as “clowns,” playing all of the show’s secondary roles. At one bravura moment, they switch multiple hats to convey the bobbies, newsies and commuters at a crowded English railway station. Some of their characterizations go crazily over the top, but they primarily stay in the comedy styles of early movie talkies and vaudeville or music hall performers, so the chaos feels specific.

When Hannay becomes literally attached to smart blonde Pamela (Dyer again) in the second act, the show loses a little of its steam. Dyer doesn't have nearly as much fun with Pamela as she does with the German femme fatale and a randy Scottish wife. MacDonald proves charmingly unflappable despite his life-or-death dilemmas. Although Hannay regains his zest for life, The 39 Steps avoids heavy themes but delivers fleet-footed inventiveness, including a recreation of a famous North by Northwest scene, with shadow puppets.

Shadow puppets also provide The Body Detective’s most ickily memorable moment when the hero gets chewed, swallowed and assailed by stomach acids and mucous. (Don’t worry, parents, he gets rescued before his trip down the digestive system turns scatological.) Apart from the “Fat Man” reference, The Body Detective keeps its comedic focus less on English whodunits than American hard-boiled gumshoe stories.

Written and directed by Jon Ludwig, this revival of The Body Detective follows Sam Flatfoot (Michael Haverty) as a mysterious client confronts him with the mystery of a body — “a living, breathing body” — and tells Sam to find out “who’s responsible.” Sam follows clues down to Body Town and venues like The Five Senses Nightclub. The plot simply links one physiological musical number to the next, but Ludwig’s blend of detective tropes and surreal imagery proves irresistible. It’s as much Salvador Dali as Sam Spade.

Sam gets the skinny from informants such as a giant, talking eye, a femme fatale pair of lips and a hulked-out musculature costume (which could be an escapee from Bodies: The Exhibition hired as a bouncer). The finger-snapping, jazzy musical pastiches (performed live by JMichael) make The Body Detective swing like one of Jim Henson’s vintage muppet show. (One imagines that the Center has an adults-only “XPT” deleted scene from the play devoted to the reproductive system.)

Between The Body Detective’s health-class details and The 39 Steps’ appreciation of film history, both plays prove surprisingly educational. It's if both theaters have cracked the mystery of how to make learning fun.

The 39 Steps. Through Feb. 20. $24-33. Tues.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m. Theatre in the Square, 11 Whitlock Ave., Marietta. 770-422-8369. www.theatreinthesquare.com
The Body Detective. Through March 13. Center for Puppetry Arts, 1404 Spring St. 404-873-3391. www.puppet.org

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