By PAM HARBAUGH
It may seem pretty smooth and normal on the stage, but take a look behind “The 39 Steps” and you’ll find a choreographed dance of mad dashes.
That’s not to be confused with frantic. Indeed, despite the show’s demands and nature’s interruption (Hurricane Irma forced a week’s postponement of the opening), Surfside Players is primed to entertain with laughs galore in this send-up of Alfred Hitchcock suspense.
“Some of the costume changes, character changes and location changes are so complicated they’re almost Cirque du Soleil theatrical,” said the show’s director, Bryan Bergeron.
The play is based on the 1935 Hitchcock film, which, in turn, was based on John Buchan’s 1915 novel. The movie had 29 characters enacting the story of espionage, murder, an international spy ring and top secret information. The stage play has a reported 150 characters.
Set in pre-World War II, Richard Hannay happens upon a German spy who entreats him to take her back to his London flat and tells him about a Nazi plot to steal top secret information. She is murdered and Hannay is the prime suspect. While escaping, he meets Pam and she becomes his unwilling accomplice. They end up in Scotland, where the murdered spy had planned to go. The story eventually returns to London.
This stage adaptation, written by Patrick Barlow and based on an earlier concept by Nobby Dimon and Simon Corble, uses the conceit that “The 39 Steps” will be played by a cast of four. That means casting actors who are talented, skilled and clear headed enough to keep their characters distinct.
Take Becky Behl-Hill. She plays three roles – the German spy, Pam and Margaret, a Scottish farmgirl.
The one full costume change that has her panicked, she says, is when she turns from Pam into Margaret. She darts backstage, hurriedly removes a coat, dress and hat, dons a blouse, skirt and bustier and wipes off lipstick.
She also flips from an English accent into a Scottish accent and quickly morphs into a different posture.
“It’s pretty crazy,” she said. “It’s a lot of fun and it’s exhausting.”
But it’s nothing compared to the two people who play the so-called “clowns” – Dusty Ray and Joanne Maio. They play so many characters that no one seems to have an exact number.
“The costume changes are the biggest thing,” Ray said. “There’s no break. We’re backstage, running to grab the next costume. So it’s a bit nuts.”
Ray plays 17 characters, he said. When he turns from a thug into the Scottish innkeeper, he has to remember to roll up his pants, put on a kilt, a vest and a tam o’shanter with sideburns attached. He also changes his accent.
Showing off his skills with accents, Ray, who studied theater at Florida State University, said he thinks “Monty Python” comedians John Cleese for his policeman and Michael Palin for his salesman. He thinks “Austin Power” star Michael Meyers’ over the top portrayal of “Fat Bastard’s rough, growly” sound when he has to slip into a Scottish accent.
In all, the “clowns” go from vaudeville performers and thugs to cops and mysterious walk-ons and much more. In fact, in this cast of four, only one actor – Kirk Murphy – plays the one role throughout, that of story’s hero, Richard Hannay.
“For me, it’s fairly easy,” Murphy said. “I’m the straight man.”
But it sounds like a “straight man” is just what is needed for a stable fulcrum between jokes that swing with silliness and nods that speak to Hitchcock classics.
The audience becomes involved with the incredibly fast pace that the show must maintain,” Bergeron said. “The actors break fourth wall. The audience becomes complicit. There are true moments of tension and drama. But it’s an overt, wacky comedy.”
And that is easy picking for Bergeron, who’s known for creative takes on humor.
“There’s a plane chase a la ‘North by Northwest’ – we do shadow puppets for that,” he said. “We have a projection screen as part of our set, so there are a number of parodies of Hitchcock’s famous movies, like ‘Rear Window,’ ‘The Birds,’ ‘Psycho’ and of course ‘The 39 Steps.’
“The best way to put it, is it’s sketch comedy driven by the script.”
There is so much humor and quick changes, he said, that the hardest part for a director is keeping the story line clear and clean.
Especially daunting are the several escapes that Hannay makes.
“In the movie, he actually runs into a parade on the streets,” Bergeron said. “That’s complicated with a four-person show. So we have a parade on the screen.”
Behl-Hill said Bergeron’s vision is unique and that the audience will enjoy it.
It’s certainly fun for the actors, Ray said.
Having spent 16 years in New York City as a professional lighting designer and master electrician, Ray worked with big names like Patrick Stewart at both the Public Theatre’s Shakespeare in the Park and on Broadway. He also was assistant lighting designer for “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” with Nathan Lane.
Now, he’s back in his hometown working for Calvery Chapel in Melbourne. Surfside, he said, is his theatrical “home base.”
And “The 39 Steps,” he said, is a winner.
“Oh, yeah…it is SO funny,” he said. “It is outrageous this show. And Bryan’s done a great job taking the Hitchcock thing and really playing it.”
“The 39 Steps runs through Oct. 1 at Surfside Playhouse, 301 Ramp Road (5th Street South), Cocoa Beach, FL. The show performs 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $25 general, $22 seniors and students. There is a $1.75 processing fee per ticket. Call 321- 783-3127, visit SurfsidePlayers.com or click on their ad.