by Lenise Willis

Coordinated chaos and calculated chuckles

Triad Stage’s first show of its Greensboro season is a hilarious, slap-stick murder mystery.

When Patrick Barlow wrote The 39 Steps, a stage adaptation based on Alfred Hitchcock’s film, he certainly anticipated a lot more movement than that from the actors. In performing the high-energy comedy, Triad Stage’s actors obliged with swift, chaotic and hilarious leaps.

To kick off its 14th season, Triad Stage channeled the last drifts of the young, carefree and zany energy of summer. A hilarious romp through a spy novel, The 39 Steps, directed by Jen Wineman, combines a light plot of murderous mystery with the creativity of improv and the oh-so-appreciated “simple” humor of an “SNL” skit.

In the play, a bored Richard Hannay takes home a beautiful secret agent with a thick accent, only to find her murdered the next morning. On the run from a foreign power called The 39 Steps, Hannay runs into a slew of characters as he seeks the man with a missing finger.

Sal Cacciato and Andy Paterson as Clown 1 and Clown 2 were a tornado of hats and costumes in this past Friday’s performance as they portrayed more than 100 characters. Their exhausting performance, resembling a typecast personality disorder, had them switching in and out of roles so quickly and seamlessly, that I can’t imagine how they remembered who they were at any given moment.

The most telling sign of their talent was the fact that they brought each character to new life even though they literally switched hats right in front of the audience at times. Within a split second, they had to make me believe and invest in a new character “” and I did each time. (Sometimes it put my brain in a pretzel.)

Actually, all four actors delivered a high-energy performance and by some miracle managed to not collide on stage amidst the chaos.

Brian Lee Huynh (Richard Hannay) and Laura Woodward (Annabella/Pamela/Margaret) showed off their nimbleness and slap-stick humor as they tried to make a get-away while handcuffed.

Woodward also did a magnificent job keeping a straight face while speaking in exaggerated Russian and Scottish accents.

I can also bet that it was Melissa Trn’s ingenious costume designs that made the role juggling possible in the first place. Sometimes the costumes were luxurious, like the secret agent’s beautiful ball gown. Sometimes they were simple and easily transformed.

The set design, created by Timothy Mackabee, kept me bouncing along with the actors’ energy too. Although the framework was an elegant and lavish red and gold theater with box seats and a chandelier, the center of the stage was simple and constantly evolving while the actors created makeshift props as the story went along.

My favorite improvised prop was a car created on demand.

When the actors needed to drive the subjects to the police station, they realized they didn’t have a vehicle. So they made one out of a luggage bag and two chairs.

The lighting crew took over the rest for a simple but unexpected surprise. Throughout the play, in fact, there were quite a few playful surprises, including a white backdrop curtain and puppet silhouettes.

The slap-stick and skit-styled humor was further exasperated by calculated unpreparedness. The actors made the stage crew a fifth character by talking to them when a set piece failed to materialize or a sound effect flopped. Honestly, the first time the phone continued to ring after the actor had picked it up, I thought it was a terrible blunder. But as the play continued, I realized it was the playwright’s sense of humor.

Overall, the play isn’t deep, and that’s OK. Don’t go expecting a delicious murder mystery that slowly unfolds into the big “ah ha” moment. It’s just plain fun and crazy “” something you can veg out to at the end of a long day. I, for one, appreciated that brain break and enjoyed laughing more than thinking. !


The 39 Steps runs now through Sept. 28 at Triad Stage, 232 S. Elm St., Greensboro. Tickets are $10-$48 depending on day and seating. For tickets and more information visit or call 272-0160.