Even though it’s not one of his most commercially successful films, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 spy thriller The 39 Steps has many of the hallmarks of the great director’s repertoire. There’s the shady, sinister group pursuing the unwitting hero (a network of spies known as The 39 Steps); there’s the series of mysterious femme fatales (played by Lucie Mannheim and Madeleine Carroll); there’s the MacGuffin, a seemingly important goal or item that exists merely to push the plot and protagonists along. In this case it’s a set of plans for a noiseless airplane engine. And there’s the never-ending series of chases, location changes, and nail-biting close calls our hero, Richard Hannay, goes through.
That’s the film version. The stage version, which Charleston’s Footlight Players will be performing starting this Friday night, is a loving parody of Hitchcock’s familiar tropes, and an exercise in theatrical minimalism. Four actors, aided only by lighting and sound cues, will take the audience on a hilarious journey through Hitchcock’s catalog, complete with a bi-plane chase on the Scottish moors (a homage to North by Northwest), sudden, stabbing Psycho-esque music, and various car chases, shootings, and double-crosses, all with tongue firmly in cheek and with individual actors changing into multiple roles, sometimes in the same sentence.
It’s a sort of Hitchcock version of the breakneck comedy The Complete Works Of William Shakespeare (Abridged), a frenzied run through some of the greatest cinematic moments in history where the script is less of the comedic thrust than the quick-changes and character reactions. It is also, to hear this version’s Richard Hannay, Kyle Barnette, tell it, a hell of a lot of fun.
“You get to see how theater can, with just a few props, take you on a journey through an entire film,” Barnette says. “We use ladders for giant bridges that Richard crawls across in the moors, and benches and boxes for a train chase, but you get all of the adventure that’s in the film from four actors.”
As the center of the play around whom the action revolves, Barnette only plays the one role of Richard. Actress Beth Curley plays three roles, with the remaining 25 parts being filled out by two other actors.
“It’s done with a minimum of costume changes,” Barnette says, “so a character change might be conveyed through the turning of a facial expression or the changing of a hand gesture. There’s one scene when we’re in a hotel and there’s an old Scottish couple that’s being investigated by two policeman, but the old couple also plays the policemen. So they’re just turning back and forth and making a minor wardrobe adjustment in-between.”
But despite sounding a bit chaotic, The 39 Steps isn’t performed like some frenzied, ragged sketch show where the fun comes in things falling apart. In order for the tightrope of suspense and laughs to work, the actors, working with director Allison Brower, had to become a well-oiled machine.
“These actors all rotate around Richard throughout the show, turning into different characters sometimes in the middle of a sentence,” Barnette says. “It’s got to be really crisp and clean. There are slapstick elements, but it’s got to be sharp, or you have chaos.”
And since we’re talking about a set that’s basically some chairs, a couple of doors, a windowsill, and a bench, the sound and lighting for The 39 Steps are both crucial.
“A lot of the story is told with the sound and the lights,” Barnette says. “They’re really additional characters in the play because of the minimalism. The lighting establishes the locations and the mood, whether it’s Scotland or a giant mansion or a forest. The lighting sets that tone for you. And this show has 221 sound cues. The sound tells as much of the story as the lights do. You’ve got to have the sound of a train, you’ve got to have a plane crash, there’s voiceovers. It’s definitely an adventure.”
In fact, the lighting of the show is such a crucial aspect of the play that when we reached out to the Footlight Players to talk about the production, they asked that we include lighting designer Paul Hartmann in our interviews.
“Lighting, with any show, is one of the many important elements, along with acting, directing, scene design, backstage crew, and stage management,” Hartmann says. “These are the things that enhance how the story is told. With The 39 Steps, my goal is to help the audience know where and when the scene is happening, from the moors to a cottage to an assembly hall as well as whether it is daytime or night. The show moves so quickly from location to location at such fast pace that lighting really helps guide the audience along. And I hope to add a few fun surprise effects to add to the audience’s experience.”