WINCHESTER – Those looking to shake loose the cobwebs of a long winter and a lethargic spring should look no further than the break-neck pace of the comedy thriller The 39 Steps being put on by the Dundas County Players (DCP) at the Old Town Hall later this month.
This hilarious retelling of John Buchan’s novel of the same name and the 1935 Hitchcock classic thriller is a comic adaptation by Patrick Barlow and has the unique distinction of having more than 100 supporting roles played by only six actors. Lightning quick changes in persona happen with a hat put on or taken off, a cape thrown over a uniform or a change of accent. Things get particularly wild and woolly during a train sequence when two of the characters have to play a pair of women’s undergarment salesmen, two cops, plus the train conductor and a paperboy at the same time.
While the pace can be frenetic, the main plot stays true to the movie version. When Richard Hannay, played by Rick Ventrella, is accused of a crime he didn’t commit, he finds himself pursued by German spies, entangled with mysterious women and caught up in an elaborate plot with the fate of the country in his hands.
Director Tony Glen is very pleased with his talented cast and crew.
“This play demands a substantial amount of physicality and versatility from everyone,” he explained. “Each of those supporting cast members, ‘the clowns’ I call them, had to find their inner clown. Who are they? Because one moment they’re a policeman, the next moment they’re a gnarly Scottish crofter, then they’re a showgirl, but they’re all doing it as a clown in a way.”
For Glen and his cast one of the greatest challenges was to tread that fine line between slapstick comedy and still telling a great story.
“You read it and you think ‘oh this is all kind of goofy and funny’ and then you realize it’s still got a serious message. It’s a message about a man who feels he has no role, purpose or love in his life. Then he’s thrown into this international spy story where the safety of his entire country is in peril. And all the way along he’s being seduced by attractive but dark powers and he resists that to the end. The serious theme survives through all the shenanigans and fun,” said Glen.
In addition to playing multiple roles, the actors also pull and push set pieces on and off stage, including trunks, desks and beds, ladders, tables and doorframes, creating a set that is both simple and complex. With so many moving parts and characters, a huge part of this production will be timing.
“We’re not there yet. Getting those things moved about and getting things in place. The actors have been great because they all know their lines and characters, but now we’re onto the mechanical stuff. Who moves the step ladder and who swings the door around. That’s going to be choreographed like a dance. That’s the challenging part right now,” said Glen. “There are trains and even an airplane chase, but I think what’s fun is people realize that all of that is really in their imagination. That’s how we’re doing all of these things with just ladders, boxes, trunks and chairs. All of these great settings are created in your imagination.”
A seasoned actor and director, Glen says that what convinced him to bring this production to Winchester was the sheer entertainment of it all.
“I saw this play in a production in Nova Scotia and I laughed my guts out. I thought it was so funny from start to end. It’s a chance for these actors to strut their stuff and have fun and I also thought it would really please the audiences around here because it’s so accessible,” he said.
The 39 Steps is a fast-paced whodunit full of playfulness and humour for anyone who loves the magic of theatre.
“I want [audiences] to have a laugh, to think about the nature of evil and how it can take many attractive forms and to see the magic of theatre that exists in your own mind,” said Glen.
Evening performances start at 7:30 pm on April 20, 21, 27 and 28. Sunday matinees are at 2 pm, April 22 and 29.
Tickets are $15 for adults, $10 for youths (18 and under) and are available at www.dcplayers.ca, by phone at 613-297-0097 or at The Planted Arrow in Winchester.