When in comes to contemporary melodrama, replete with twists & turns of fate, augmented by unexpected characters or situations looming behind the dark recess of every corner, the late Director Alfred Hitchcock looms high on a pedestal of achievement that few can touch.
High in Hitchcock's pantheon is The 39 Steps, a sprawling 1935 Hitchcock classic about spies between the wars, dashing heroes & classy dames, with the plot revolving around a debonair 37-year old Canadian bachelor in London, who becomes bored one evening and goes out to the theater alone. A mysterious woman in black fires a gun in the middle of a memory-artist's act; and from there all variety of pursuit ensues.
Fast forward to 2006, when playwright Patrick Barlow turned this classic tale of suspense & intrigue into a Monty Pythonesque farce, opening his production in London and winning an Olivier Award (Britain's equivalent of the Tony) for best new comedy. Two years later the production moved across the pond to Broadway; and now The Bay City Players are bringing this highly entertaining and unorthodox production to the stage for a series of performances running from March 1-3 & 7-10, with performance times of 8:00 PM Thursday - Saturday; and Sunday matinees at 3:00 PM.
The play's concept calls for the entire of the 1935 adventure film to be performed with a cast of only four: one actor playing the hero, Richard Hannay, one actress playing the three women with whom he has romantic entanglements, and the other two actors playing every other character in the show: heroes, villains, men, women, children, and even the occasional inanimate object. As a consequence, the film's serious spy story is transformed into a highly comedic vehicle, with the script full of allusions to (and puns on the titles of) other Hitchcock films.
For Director Leeds Bird, there are many pivotal elements that distinguish this production from earlier treatments. “The 39 Steps was a leader in its genre each time it appeared to the public,” he explains. “The novel was an unexplored treatment of espionage in 1915 and is still admired by man 'spy thriller' buffs today as the start of a great genre in literature.”
“Hitchcock's film was one of his two most important during his 'English' period, before working in the USA. It began his repeated theme of the innocent man, falsely accused - usually of murder - who is the only one who can prove his own innocence.”
“Barlow's addition of middle class English humor, ala Monty Python, took what could be slightly dated treatments and wrapped them in a fresh, totally off-center laughter,” continues Bird. “Barlow invites individual productions to add or subtract whatever will continue the spontaneous flow of Python-style humor. He knows theatres, actors, directors all can add their own touches of spontaneity and brilliance.”
“Consequently, I have chosen to add zanies to our production. We have seven zany zanies. Coming from commedia del arte, zanies are persons who appear and disappear at will providing scenery or propos or costumes or simply atmosphere to whatever is needed. In our production they go from being a coat rack to holding a window (rear, of course) to striking scenery, and even being a heard of vagrant sheep. In a real sense, zanies and commedia were a real forerunner of traditional European mime and of the great American clowns like Red Skelton, Carol Burnett, and Lucille Ball.”
Given that this work is basically performed on stage by 4 actors in varied roles, how difficult is it for them to perform numerous characters within one production? For Kurt Miller the challenge is one of separation. “Speaking for myself, the biggest challenge is to separate accents and physicality to successfully identify the characters for the audience. They must be instantly recognizable, especially when we're literally changing voices and costumes in front of the audience. I have three separate Scots accents, three or four British accents, and one cultured British accent that must morph into a German accent within one speech.”
“I have an extraordinary cast of amazing actors,” enthuses Bird. “Trevor Keyes and Kurt Miller play perhaps 10 characters each are both exceptional with improvisation and spontaneous foolishness. Caitlin Berry, my only actress, is a formidable talent and smoothly creates three totally different characters with the flick of the wrist, a change in posture, and of course a change of costume, accent, wig, or whatever. My leading man, Nathan Cholger, is the idea 'roguishly handsome' man who must prove himself innocent. He is the solid core who anchors all the tomfoolery into a sensible chase/thriller for the truth.”
“We spent the first half of rehearsal creating very solid characters adhering to the lot or the script. Our final weeks of rehearsal are devoted to relaxing that aspect of the production and diving head long into the wacky world of Monty Python. It is working out beautifully - all the actors are amazing and hilarious.”
Obviously, timing is important with successfully rendering comedy; and according to Leeds, British off-center humor makes it even more so. “But the openness of Monty Python treatment finds humor in things out of the ordinary; things on stage not totally working out as planned, whether intentional or accidental. And the actors quickly turn problems into laughter. A great deal of the humor lies in watching Keyes and Miller sweat it out in order to do what they need to do - very little is hidden from the audience. The leading man is not the only person who feels the pressure of time - these two screwballs do as well,” smiles Leeds..
Are there any areas or plot lines within the script that as a director Leeds is trying to emphasize or highlight in this production to bring out the strongest elements of the script? “Given the popularity of Hitchcock movies, very little needs to be spelled out or emphasized for today's audience,” he reflects. “It is the addition of totally wacky humor that breathes new and funny life into what some would consider old-school spy thrillers.”
Does Bird feel this work succeeds on the levels of both drama and comedy; and what does he feel is the strongest appeal about this production for audiences? “I don't think Barlow intended his treatment to be a drama,” he concludes. “He was deliberately writing a comedy. However, he was smart in choosing to do so with both a novel and a movie that established the format for dramatic spy-chase murder mysteries. The plot is so strongly established in our culture that it holds up strongly in the face of laughter and farce.”
Tickets for 'The 39 Steps' presented by Bay City Players can be ordered online at www.baycityplayers.com or by calling the box office at 989-893-5555.