A classic Alfred Hitchcock thriller, the plot of a Bond film and Monty Python-style slapstick might not seem to go together, but in Village Theatre’s new play “The 39 Steps,” they add up to an evening well spent.
While at the theatre one evening in 1930s London, Richard Hannay (played by Aaron Lamb) meets alluring spy Annabella Schmidt (Emily Cawley) and agrees to help hide her from the assassins on her tail. In the middle of the night, Schmidt is fatally stabbed by her enemies, but before dying, tells Hannay that a Scottish town called Alt-na-Shellach is the key to stopping British military secrets from being given to the Nazis.
Hannay sets off for Scotland to solve the mystery and defeat the spies, all the while on the run from the police, who believe that he is responsible for Schmidt’s murder. Along the way, he runs into a variety of obstacles, including a daring escape from a train, an encounter with a crofter and his much younger wife, a kidnapping interrupted by some intrepid sheep and a midnight journey handcuffed to a clever but cold woman (Cawley).
The success of Village’s production lies in the ability to get by with the minimum, whether props, set or even manpower. Just four actors take on the roles of 150 characters. Orion Bradshaw and Chris Ensweiler often portray multiple characters during the same dialogue with some quick changes of hats and accents. Bradshaw and Ensweiler play the bulk of the roles and have impeccable timing, managing to transition seamlessly between all of their characters.
Props provide many of the show’s gags, such as a light bulb that comes on whenever Hannay has an idea. A relatively small collection of props makes do for every scene, as long as audience members are able to use their imaginations. A set of suitcases becomes train seats in one scene and in another scene — with the addition of two stools and a podium — becomes an old-fashioned automobile.
“We wanted as many trunks and suitcases onstage as possible,” Properties Manager Nick Heggestad said, explaining that one of the suitcases plays four different “roles” throughout the show, including a fireplace.
“We work very closely with [Scenic Designer Burton Yuen] and [Director Matt Walker],” Heggestad said. “We knew what the director wanted in terms of function and what the scenic designer wanted in terms of look.”
Many of the props are bare-bones in simplicity, but this only adds to the humor. When Hannay has to escape out of a cottage’s rear window (yes, that’s a Hitchcock reference), he does not climb through a set, but instead pulls a wooden window frame over his body. And a gaggle of sheep that gets in the way of a moving vehicle is really a set of wooden sheep pushed up onto the stage through a hole in the floor.
This may sound on paper like kids putting on a play in their parents’ garage, but on stage it’s full of charm and, with the style of the show, it works.
“That perspective is the aim of the show … aging things, making things look on outward appearance more simple,” Heggestad said. “But we’ve taken the time to make sure they’re appropriate to the style of the show.”
The script is rife with pop culture references, such as a loving allusion to an iconic number from musical “The Music Man” during a scene on a train. Hitchcock fans will delight at several clever references to the British master of suspense’s works, including “Psycho,” “The Birds,” “North by Northwest,” “Rear Window” and “Dial M for Murder.” Sound Designer Brent Warwick said that there are sound cues for music from “about a dozen” Hitchcock films throughout the show.
According to Warwick, “The 39 Steps” is one of the largest shows to be put on at Village in terms of sound effects, with 375 sound cues, 170 of which are performed by the sound operator. This translates to a sound cue about every 20 seconds, he said.
Warwick described doing sound for the show as “one big, insane video game.”
“My job is reacting to what’s going on,” he said. “It gets very frantic at times, but … it’s a lot of fun. Without the frantic, ‘Monty Python pace,’ it wouldn’t work.”
“The 39 Steps” plays Wednesdays through Sundays and select Tuesdays through Feb. 26 at the Francis J. Gaudette Theatre, located at 303 Front Street N. in Issaquah. For tickets, call the box office at 425-392-2202 or visit www.villagetheatre.org/issaquah/the-39-steps.php.