Actors — theater people in general — have to be just a tad insane. Why else would they willingly tackle The 39 Steps, in which four actors re-create an entire Alfred Hitchcock movie?
"That is an amazing marathon performance for 90 minutes," says Murray Ross, TheatreWorks' artistic director. "Those guys never stop. They're coming on, they're coming off, costumes are flying off them."
"Those guys" are Josh Robinson, Lindsay Rae Taylor, Sammie Joe Kinnett and Justin Walvoord. Robinson plays the lead, Richard Hannay, and is the only actor to carry his character throughout the play. Taylor plays three women, including the spy who dies in the hapless Hannay's apartment, starting his journey through espionage. Kinnett and Walvoord inhabit the remaining characters, with Geoffrey Kent directing the mayhem.
"Many of these characters appear for less than a minute in the show," Ross says. "So the actor has to turn on a dime and create a whole character with physicality, with intention and with the costume."
TheatreWorks' costume designer, Jan Avramov, devised clothing that's easy to take off and put on; some costumes are in ever-increasing sizes so the actors can layer them. "That's a whole other level of engineering that's required," Ross says.
And it's all done so Hannay can travel from London's Royal Albert Hall to the Scottish Highlands and back again, encountering people speaking with 70 — yes, 70 — distinct accents, trained by dialect coach Leah Chandler-Mills.
Patrick Barlow's acclaimed script, which he debuted in 2005, draws upon the original 1915 book by John Buchan. But it parodies the 1935 film that put Hitchcock on the cinematic map, and is festooned with references to other Hitchcock films. The audience never doubts that it's witnessing artifice.
What would Hitchcock himself have thought of this treatment?
"I think he would find this enjoyable and unique," says Robert von Dassanowsky, head of UCCS' film program, "because in somewhat spoofing it and bringing in aspects of his other films and only having four characters, you actually bring to a point what Hitchcock was trying to do in his films, which is saying that it's all about masks and theater."
He points out Hitchcock's interest in the "psychological collisions" between characters; the characters themselves often collide with their own hidden, less-appealing selves.
Another Hitchcockian theme is the director's ambivalence about women. One of the women slips off the handcuff chaining her to Hannay and goes about her business before returning to his side, which Dassanowsky sees as a metaphor for women's deftness at overcoming subjugation.
That sounds gloomy and highfalutin, but both men emphasize the play's lighthearted nature.
"It's done largely with set pieces and props and furniture and special theater tricks that will not be revealed," Ross says, laughing. "Special theater magic, quite goofy magic. But a lot of fun."