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Gerard Neugent and Reese Madigan in “The 39 Steps.”

‘39 Steps’ takes suspense to hilarious heights

The funny thing about “The 39 Steps,” now playing on the Quadracci Powerhouse stage at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater is … it’s funny! The murder, mayhem, espionage, chase scenes and miraculous escapes of the iconic Alfred Hitchcock thriller on which the play is based are all there. But in Patrick Barlow’s brilliant 2005 stage adaptation, they’re presented with humor.

The script largely follows the movie, which starred Robert Donat and Madeleine Caroll: An ordinary man is thrust into an extraordinary adventure of intrigue. He must clear his name of the murder of the beautiful spy killed in his London home.

In the Rep’s production, the story is transformed into a masterpiece of physical comedy. Reese Madigan, as the dashing but clueless Richard Hannay, is the only actor who plays just one role. Helen Anker plays thee separate women who either endanger or help the hapless Hannay. Rep company member Gerard Neugent and newcomer John Pribyl play more than 100 parts between them. These are a mixture of thugs and spies, wives and husbands, police and politicians – even a river and some eerie trees on the heath. All of this is played for laughs, and the outcome is indeed hilarious.

Watch for comic references to other Hitchcock films, including “Psycho,” “North by Northwest” and “Rear Window” (although there was a missed opportunity to reproduce the “lightbulb in the milk” scene from “Suspicion”). And, as usual in a Hitchcock production, there is even a surprise appearance by Hitchcock himself.

The lighting design by Thomas C. Hase and sound design by Barry G. Funderburg brilliantly accent the action, and the stylish costume design by Martha Hally is perfect.

Putting together such a wild collection of wonderfully inventive low-tech schtick is daunting indeed, but director J.R. Sullivan handles it masterfully. Certainly camp humor and cross-dressing are not unfamiliar to readers of the Gazette – but the astonishing variety of costumes, wigs, kilts, house dresses, evening gowns, bagpipes, caps, and weapons accent the brilliant performances by Neugent and Pribyl, bringing camp humor to new heights.

Don’t miss this performance – you will laugh your head off.

“The 39 Steps” runs through Feb. 13 on the Quadracci Powerhouse Stage of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater. Call 414-224-9490 or go to www.milwaukeerep.com.

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