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Theater preview: '39 Steps' stage adaptation lampoons Hitchcock’s classic

Published: Thursday, Jan. 3 2013 12:40 p.m. MST

WEST VALLEY CITY — Hitchcock meets hilarious in “The 39 Steps.”

An “absurdly enjoyable” evening of theater involves the film by the Master of Suspense. “The 39 Steps” is based on the same juicy spy novel adapted by Hitchcock but adds in more than a heaping helping of Monty Python-style tomfoolery to become a comedic farce of epic proportions.

“It’s a hysterical show and there’s really is nothing quite like it,” says Chris Clark, the show's director at the Hale Centre Theatre. “It’s very cheeky, very fast-paced and the type of show that I love the most. It forces the cast and director to create something from nothing.”

“The 39 Steps” follows the general outline of Hitchcock’s 1935 thriller of the same name, in which a hapless man becomes entangled in an espionage conspiracy and has to run for his life. However, the cast of the original long-running play included only four actors — but they play between 100 and 150 roles, including actors doubling parts within the same scene.

“The show is a lampoon of how seriously the movie takes itself, while also an homage to theater itself,” Clark adds.

The basic plot revolves around a man with a boring life who meets a woman with a thick accent who says she’s a spy, and they are then entangled in an espionage conspiracy. The characters they encounter include a milkman, a cleaning woman, a train conductor, husband-and-wife Scottish hoteliers, a traveling lingerie salesman, a Nazi fräulein in garters, a marching band and a pious farmer (as if there’s any other kind). A running joke is the quick-change requirements of the actors’ adding and removing hats, clothing, wigs and accents in fractions of a second, with a set of frustrations written into the script.

“When I saw the show in London, I knew there were other people offstage assisting with the production, and I wanted to know what they were doing as well,” Clark says. “So I added some characters. You can see them running around and doing their work in the show.”

The new roles are not technically for onstage actors, but they are a foley artist recreating realistic ambient sounds and a hapless stage manager.

Devotees of Hitchcock will recognize that “The 39 Steps” includes allusions to (and puns of) his other films: a crop-dusting plane, lots of birds and a character suffering from vertigo.

“There are a lot of Hitchcock elements that people who really love Hitchcock will notice here and there that add to the fun storytelling of the show,” Clark explains. “Of course, audiences don’t need to be intimately familiar with Hitchcock movies, but the references add to the enjoyment of the play.”

One mystery inherent to “The 39 Steps” is the origin of the name “The 39 Steps.”

“It’s something that’s not really clarified, in the book or the movie. There’s a comic reference to the name in the play, but it’s really the play’s ‘McGuffin,’” Clark says. A McGuffin has been defined as “nothing at all” and is a plot device that Hitchcock popularized.

Following a common occurrence in Hitchcock movies of the director inserting himself into at least one scene, there’s a brief inclusion of a Hitchcock-like character in the play adaptation.

But does the director of the play make a similar cameo?

“Well, there is a character who looks quite a bit like me,” Clark realizes. “He is bald with black, horned-rimmed glasses. So I guess I do make a cameo of sorts in the play!”

If you go

What: “The 39 Steps”

Where: Hale Centre Theatre

When: Mondays through Saturdays until Feb. 2 at 7:30 p.m. with matinees on Saturdays at 12:30 and 4 p.m.

How much: $26-$16

Tickets: 801-984-9000 or halecentretheatre.org

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