Nobody does comedy better than Alfred Hitchcock.
Wait, that’s not right. Nobody does a comedy spoof better than Patrick Barlow, whose stage adaptation of Hitchcock’s “The 39 Steps” opens this weekend at the Whidbey Island Center for the Arts in Langley. Directed by Deana Duncan, the play is a combination of mystery, comedy and romance, with the accent on comedy.
The premise of “The 39 Steps” revolves around the character Richard Hannay, played by Tristan A.B. Steel. Hannay is being pursued by police for a crime he didn’t commit and by an international spy ring for information he doesn’t have. As he flees across the moors of Scotland, his situation is complicated by the fact he is handcuffed to a beautiful woman.
While the film version had many characters, Barlow wrote the script so they could all be played by just four actors. As a result, two of the actors play close to 40 roles between them, a huge challenge for not only the actors, but the crew.
“Because it’s so fast-paced, the majority of the costume and character changes happen right in front of you, which is rare in the theater world,” Duncan said. “It took weeks and weeks of learning the proper movement. The play takes some of the back stage magic you never usually get to see and it becomes part of the show.”
The actors have 39 moving pieces with which to build a train, a plane, a hotel, a car. All the set changes are left to the cast, but that doesn’t mean the eight crew members backstage are taking it easy.
“They are crazy busy,” said Duncan. “I had to do a whole set of blocking for the backstage crew so they could be ready. If an actor comes off stage for a hat or prop, they have to be ready for that. They are as busy as the actors and will never be seen.”
It is no easy task for the actors playing multiple roles, either.
“They have to know what prop they need when, what hat they need,” said Duncan. “Then they’ve created different voices and accents for their characters. Being able to figure out who they are in the moment took weeks of practice.”
Part of the fun of the production, said Duncan, was being able to pay respect to the films of Hitchcock by adding little details.
“Barlow put in comments or ideas that point to some of Hitchcock’s other films, and as the director, we found a way to put in our own ideas,” she said. “It was fun to come up with Hitchcock trivia and put it in the show.”
One reference comes directly from the film version of “The 39 Steps,” when Hannay gets stopped on a Scottish moor by a flock of sheep. The stage version doesn’t include the little critters.
“I thought “Let’s get some,”” said Duncan. “At first it was just going to be a couple, but now there’s a whole bunch.”
Sheep lovers will have to see the play to see the inventive way the flock appears onstage.
“The 39 Steps” opens Feb. 12 and runs through Feb. 27. Friday and Saturday shows begin at 7:30 p.m., Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Tickets are $22 for adults, $18 for senior citizens and military, $15 for youth age 25 and younger and $15 for matinee performances. They can be purchased online or at the box office, located at 565 Camano Ave. in Langley.
Duncan said the production has been fun to direct and fun to watch and encourages everyone to come enjoy it.
“If you love theater, you’re going to love this play. And if you’re not a huge fan, this is the type of play you need to see,” she said. “I’ve been in the theater 25-plus years and I have never worked on anything like this amazing, original, fun piece of theater.”