THE 39 STEPS

Pasatiempo - - STEP LIVELY - Craig A. Smith I For The New Mex­i­can

When you’re Richard Han­nay, a nor­mal night out is any­thing but. Just con­sider: You are spend­ing a happy evening in a Lon­don the­ater when you find your­self en­tan­gled with a woman who says that she is a spy and that her life is in dan­ger. Be­fore you know it, the lady has been mur­dered in your flat, and you be­come the prime sus­pect.

Now, not only are the po­lice af­ter you, but a strange ca­bal, sure that you have spe­cial in­for­ma­tion gleaned from Madame X, is also in pur­suit. Be­fore you know it, you’re rac­ing across the length and breadth of Eng­land and Scot­land, flee­ing for your life. And then things re­ally start to get in­ter­est­ing.

Such is the nut­shell plot of The 39 Steps, open­ing with a gala per­for­mance on Fri­day, Feb. 26, at the Santa Fe Play­house. Di­rected by Bar­bara Hatch, the play fea­tures a four­some of ac­tors — Robyn Rikoon, Kev Smith, Ha­nia Stocker, and Hamil­ton Turner — who col­lec­tively in­habit some 130 roles, and who must move be­tween broad farce and tense sus­pense at the drop of a hat or a char­ac­ter ac­cent.

For­tu­nately, those de­mands are just Hatch’s plate of crum­pets. A noted long­time the­ater and drama teacher, she saw the play on Broad­way when teach­ing high-school the­ater in Pen­ning­ton, New Jersey, some years ago — and she took to it at once. “I re­mem­ber sit­ting in the sev­enth or eighth row back with 35 or so stu­dents,” she said. “My jaw was open the whole time, and I was think­ing, how do they do that? And laugh­ing the en­tire time.”

So when The 39 Steps turned out to be one of the cur­rent- sea­son works for which t he Play­house re­quested di­rec­tor pro­pos­als, Hatch was ea­ger to make her ap­pli­ca­tion to artis­tic di­rec­tor Vaughn Irv­ing. She had pre­vi­ously di­rected four scripts that came out of the Play­house’s play­wright com­pe­ti­tion last fall, so her work was a known quan­tity — and she was cho­sen to take on the thriller.

“For th­ese four roles, I think I had about 30 ac­tors au­di­tion,” she said. “It’s re­ally hard to cast. You’ve got to have a re­ally tight en­sem­ble. I was able to call back peo­ple and mix and match them. I found th­ese won­der­ful four peo­ple. We cast the show just be­fore Christ­mas. Our first read-through was on Jan. 11. So we’ve been re­hears­ing six or seven weeks, three to five days and nights a week. Now we go into ev­erynight re­hearsals.”

The pedi­gree of The 39 Steps is al­most as in­volved as the plot. The 2005 script by Pa­trick Bar­low for a pro­duc­tion at the West York­shire Play­house was in­spired by a 1995 con­cept by Si­mon Cor­ble and Nobby Di­mon, which it­self was adapted from Al­fred Hitch­cock’s 1935 film — which in turn was based on John Buchan’s 1915 novel (which has sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ences from the movie). The play has gar­nered a plethora of awards, in­clud­ing a 2007 Lau­rence Olivier Award for Best New Com­edy and a 2008 Drama Desk Award for Unique The­atri­cal Ex­pe­ri­ence — which makes sense, given those four ac­tors and hun­dred-plus parts.

Buchan’s novel has no comedic el­e­ments. In it, dan­ger­ous ad­ven­ture and scary sit­u­a­tions are the

norm. Hitch­cock’s adap­tion, how­ever, has both high and low com­edy, Hatch said. “When I re­watched the movie re­cently, I was struck by how un­in­ten­tion­ally funny the film is. It has a very dark, dra­matic, nu­anced side to it, and ev­ery­thing that is in the film is in the play — the chase in and on the train, the run­ning across the moors, the air­planes com­ing in. But there are many tongue-in- cheek ref­er­ences to other Hitch­cock films.”

The play is very phys­i­cally de­mand­ing, Hatch said. “The ac­tors are all los­ing weight be­cause they’re work­ing so hard,” in­clud­ing mas­ter­ing those light­ning-fast tweaks to cos­tumes, props, ex­pres­sions, and ac­cents. “I love quick changes, per­son­ally. I love them as an ac­tor, and I love them as a di­rec­tor. We’re work­ing to­gether to find ways to make the changes work. You re­ally have to be very in­ven­tive. Ev­ery stage, ev­ery the­ater, has its lim­i­ta­tions. The Play­house is a won­der­ful the­ater, a won­der­ful house, but it does have its lim­i­ta­tions.

“Changes in front of the au­di­ence are where a lot of the hu­mor comes in,” Hatch said. “The au­di­ence will see ac­tors do some­thing like five dif­fer­ent char­ac­ters in a three-minute scene. We’ve been do­ing a lot of work find­ing dif­fer­ent phys­i­cal­i­ties for dif­fer­ent char­ac­ters.”

Due at­ten­tion is be­ing paid to dif­fer­ing ac­cents, too. Hatch speaks Ger­man, French, and Por­tuguese, as well as English, so she has been able to help Rikoon with ac­cent de­vel­op­ment. Irv­ing has also coached the ac­tors. “Richard Han­nay, in this pro­duc­tion, in the play, is not from Great Bri­tain. He’s from Canada. That makes his job a lit­tle bit eas­ier. He’s more or less do­ing stan­dard Amer­i­can. My the­ory with ac­cents is, be­cause it’s al­most a farce, we’re not look­ing for ex­act repli­cas, but the idea of the ac­cent so that peo­ple rec­og­nize it. If peo­ple are fo­cus­ing too much on the ac­cent, then they’re los­ing the char­ac­ter.”

Hatch likes The 39 Steps both as a play to di­rect, and one to watch when her job as di­rec­tor is over. But her the­atri­cal pref­er­ences are broad. “I’ve been dis­cov­er­ing — over the past few years, es­pe­cially — that I re­ally love to di­rect com­edy be­cause it’s so dif­fi­cult, it’s so spe­cific, and so eas­ily messed up,” she said. “But I love to di­rect ev­ery­thing. I love to di­rect Shake­speare. I love the clas­sics — Molière, Chekhov, Ten­nessee Wil­liams. I will never di­rect a play that I am not pas­sion­ate about and that I do not be­lieve fully in. I’ll read a script and I’m drawn to it im­me­di­ately. Or not.”

Ha­nia Stocker, Robyn Rikoon, Kev Smith, and Hamil­ton Turner in The 39 Steps; op­po­site page,

Madeleine Car­roll and Robert Donat in Hitch­cock’s film (top) and on set (bot­tom);

photo this page Lynn Roy­lance

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