Take a pinch of Alfred Hitchcock and a dash of The Monty Python and you’ve got the Elmira Theatre Company’s newest production, The 39 Steps, which opens September 18.
ETC and Vision Theatre Productions have teamed up to stage Patrick Barlow’s adaptation of the 1935 Hitchcock film, which includes mystery, romance, and a lot of laughs.
Director Ken Harkes says he knew he wanted to direct The 39 Steps since he first read the script in 2012.
“It was intriguing to me because it’s so challenging,” Harkes said. “It seems like such a simple play but it’s incredibly challenging for everyone. It looks simple but it’s highly technical.”
The hero of the play, Thom Smith as Richard Hannay, plays one part, but he’s pretending to be a slew of other people in it as he becomes a secret agent. The sole female, Melissa Roe, plays Annabella Schmidt, Pamela, and Margaret. Dan Kelley as Clown one and Steve Whetstone as Clown two play all the other parts in the movie.
“Our audiences are watching four actors, in our case five because we’ve added a part, try to recreate the movie on the stage,” Harkes said.
The fifth actor, Calum McGeachie, plays the Foley Guy, creating sound effects backstage like an old radio play. Harkes said he got the idea to add in that role from a performance of Zorro at the Elora Festival a few years ago where they had a whole movie played with live Foley people doing sound effects.
He said a typical production would have 100 to 150 cues, but this one involves hundreds of cues, which makes the play that much more challenging.
“There are tons of accents, costume changes, and moving sets around. It’s marvelous,” Harkes said. “The backstage crew even has to be visible in moving stuff around. It’s all choreographed more than normal.”
Harkes directed a show for Vision Theatre Productions in Fergus last year and has been heavily involved with the Elmira Theatre Company for years. He said it’s long been a goal of his to get theatre groups in the area working together. He said he also hoped it would attract more people to work on the show during the summer and get more audience members, both challenges for the September show each year.
“Hopefully it paves the way for other groups to do the same, to join forces.”
But the biggest challenge he says is the show has to go from Elmira to Fergus with only a few days in between, and the stages are completely different.
“This has been carefully designed by Robert Banning to go from here to Fergus with the least fuss possible.”
To sum up the plot, the hero, Richard Hannay, is completely bored with his life to the point where he doesn’t even know if it’s worth living, and by the end of the play he’s found someone who makes his life worth living.
“The play is about searching for a reason to live,” Harkes said. “It’s a comedy spy thriller, but it’s also sort of a carefully disguised love story.”
The two-act play runs roughly two hours. Harkes says the play is for ages 12 and up and people shouldn’t be turned off if they haven’t read the book or seen the movie.
“You can just come and enjoy it,” Harkes said. “It’s an interesting, different type of play because of the set, because of the people playing so many different parts. It’s fast-paced, it’s funny. And we call it a light-hearted spoof of Hitchcock’s films and the film noir genre.”
Be prepared for a staging that takes plenty of cues from the spy thriller genre, including shadows, mysterious evil characters, the dark-haired femme fatale, the light-haired heroine, and the hero who’s mistakenly charged with murder.
The production of The 39 Steps runs at the Elmira Theatre from September 18-21 and September 26-28 and then at the Fergus Grand Theatre from October 3-5. Tickets are $20, available by calling Centre in the Square at 519-578-1570 or at www.elmiratheatre.com.