Yukon News

4 actors + 60 characters = 39 Steps

Josh Kerr Wednesday February 8, 2012

Mike Thomas/Yukon News

ARTS39steps

Clockwise from left: Eric Epstein, Carrie Burgess, George Maratos and Anthony Trombetta in a scene from the Guild's production of 39 Steps.

It’s impossible to know what John Buchan would think of the theatrical adaptation of his novel 39 Steps. He’s been dead for 72 years.

But given how different it is, there is a possibility he wouldn’t even recognize it as his own work.

The play, which has its Whitehorse premiere this Thursday at the Guild Hall, is a far cry from the spy thriller that Buchan originally wrote.

The play isn’t just an adaptation of the novel, but an adaptation of an adaptation.

Alfred Hitchcock was the first to rework the novel. His version of 39 Steps premiered in 1935, the same year that Buchan was appointed governor general of Canada.

Hitchcock’s version was only loosely based on Buchan’s novel.

The British director turned the literary thriller into a film noir, adding a couple femme fatale characters for good measure.

In the 2005 theatrical version, writer Patrick Barlow turned Hitchcock’s 39 Steps from a thriller to a farce.

“It marries two genres, the film noir genre with a broad, vaudeville-style slapstick stage comedy,” said Clinton Walker, who is the director of the Yukon production of the play.

The play follows Richard Hannay, an unsuspecting Londoner who gets caught up in a plot to steal vital British military secrets.

While there are more than 60 characters in the play, there are only four actors in the cast.

George Maratos, who plays Hannay, might be the star of the show but with only one character to portray, he has it relatively easy.

Carrie Burgess, who plays both female roles, gets off pretty easy as well.

It’s Anthony Trombetta and Eric Epstein who shoulder the lion’s share of the acting work, with more than 60 roles shared between them.

Even the assistant stage managers get in on some of the jokes.

“They’re separate from the play,” said Walker. “I never pretend that they’re characters. We always know that they’re assistant stage managers, but sometimes I put a hat on them and make them run across the stage.”

Quite a few of the play’s jokes come from letting the audience see some of the work - and mistakes - that go on behind the scenes. And in this play there is quite a bit going on.

“There’s a lot of stage trickery,” said Walker. “There’s gunshots and things that flip upside down and become something else, backdrops that fly in and fly out. This is really a tough show to mount.”

The fact they were able to mount it at all is a testament to costume designer Kori Torigai, set designer Al Loewen and the rest of the design team, said Walker.

“It’s been interesting coming up with our sweet Guild Hall version,” he said. “It’s a real MacGyver go.”

The cast is also spectacular, said Walker. However, casting a show in Whitehorse is a challenge, and 39 Steps was no exception.

“There is no lack of talented people up here, it’s just that people have all sorts of creative endeavours going on,” he said.

To find the actors he needed, Walker made efforts to tap into Whitehorse’s vibrant stand-up and sketch comedy community.

“I really needed people in the workspace who had a real sense of play,” he said. “I always want someone who will bring work to the table.

“From the assistant stage manager right to myself, everyone’s got an equal say at the creative table. I’ve been very lucky landing the cast that I have.”

Though all the actors shine, it’s Trombetta who really steals the show, said Walker.

“Trombetta just kills it,” he said.

“He has a fearlessness that works so beautifully with this show.”

This is the third play Walker has directed for the Guild, but it’s the first comedy.

“The first two times I came up, both plays were pretty heavy - very intense, very graphic and violent,” he said. “Pretty mature themes where people left the theatre feeling quite desolate. Not really the thing you want to program in the middle of the winter.”

He told the Guild that if he came back he wanted to do a comedy, and 39 Steps is full of laughs.

“We’ve been trying to do a gag a page, he said. “We’re getting pretty close to it.”

Walker hasn’t read the original novel, but he did recently watch the film.

“There was a real solid, if not subtle, sense of humour in the film,” said Walker. “I don’t know how Alfred Hitchcock would feel about it. He seems like sort of a serious cat, but I think ultimately would appreciate that the work lives on and is not being made fun of but being celebrated.”

The play premieres Feb. 9 at the Guild Hall. It runs until Feb. 15.

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