These are trying times by anyone’s standards. Do we not deserve some levity? Should that levity not come in the form of mystery theatre? Further, should that mystery theatre not include local comedic hero Andy Curtis and former MADtv alum, Ron Pederson? Thankfully for us, Vertigo Theatre is bringing all of these things in The 39 Steps.
First a novel by John Buchan, then a film by Alfred Hitchcock, now an internationally-renowned play, The 39 Steps has proven to be a very popular production. At the heart of the play there is Richard Hannay, who is on the run for a crime he didn’t commit, from mysterious women and the Nazis who are chasing him. This dramatic storyline lends itself well to the comedic elements that aren’t necessarily expected by an audience, and it is no wonder why Vertigo is presenting it a second time.
TheYYSCENE is fortunate that Curtis and Pederson were able to find time between rehearsing their 120-plus characters to sit down and talk up this fun-filled, adventure mystery prior to its opening, and, yes, I let them run with it.
TheYYSCENE: This production is based more on the film The 39 Steps, which must be interesting to try to bring to the stage.
RP: It’s a big sweeping adventure that travels through Scotland, and it’s so cinematic. How are you going to make it theatrical? That’s the fun of seeing where those two things meet – how do you do something cinematic on stage? And actually the simplicity of some of the effects is just as impactful I think, if not more.
AC: I think that (this production) is a bit of an homage to the old film of course, to the classic Hitchcock film, which it cleaves to fairly closely, but it’s also I think a really beautiful homage to the theatre, both old and contemporary in many ways.
TheYYSCENE: You both play multiple characters (to say the least).
AC: We play between us, I think, 212 characters.
RP: Is that true? 700 characters?
AC: A couple we share.
RP: Some are just shadows.
AC: And some are landforms or the wind.
RP: It’s a fun notion. I think of (characters from) Airplane and Naked Gun and those sorts of guys who the comedy comes from, and how straight you’re playing it, and then you bump into the furniture. This story is sweeping, there’s a great thrilling mystery engaged in it, but as serious as that is, Andy and I get to be the furniture bumpers.
Even in that first movie, there is a glimpse of humour in it, there’s some naughty sexual things that they were doing in the ’30s that would have been quite risqué, and the romantic comedy is inside of it — it’s this guy who’s in a lot of trouble but he’s kind of having these sweet romances as it goes, so there is a levity in the movie.
AC: I also did (the production) here at Veritgo the very first time — with an inferior cast; you know, they felt so sorry for them that they all got Betty Awards just to make them feel good — and it’s beautiful, too, because the film is early Hitchcock, and of course you don’t need to go and see the movie before you see this, but if you do it will give you an extra added little bonus when you realize that we’re following the movie very closely. Especially all the epic stuff like train chases across the moors and airplanes, you can see all these elements of Hitchcock in there and there’s a few little things for aficionados too, many Vertigo fans will spot them.
RP: And Hitchcock had a good sense of humour too, actually.
AC: And like you said, too, a good sense of sexiness. It’s quite a bit naughty.
RP: Andy and I are the clowns, the “men” – Man 1 and Man 2. We have a zillion costume changes, so even when we’re off stage we don’t get a break. I was thinking that, “Oh, I’ll be able to … No. I’ll be doing an entire change there.”
AC: And the whole nonsense backstage — we’ve got a couple of stage managers to help us with quick changes and set changes and things like that.
RP: There’s a whole farcical dance happening that is a show into itself back there. Yeah, a little bit of cardio? It’s a workout.
AC: It is definitely a bit of a sweat bath, but so much fun. I think the audience will get a lot of pleasure out of knowing that, knowing how busy we are and that’s a great deal of the comedy — the story at the heart is of course played very straight, it is a thriller and it is a mystery, so it does have those elements.
RP: Our moustaches might be slightly askew, a costume will be on backwards…
TheYYSCENE: Part of the fun is seeing all of the insanity that goes on. Do you ever come out onstage and think …
RP: Which one is this? Yeah.
TheYYSCENE: What is your favourite part of this production? Not to give anything away, but …
AC: You know what my favourite bit is? The absolute glorious nonsense of the train. We create a train onstage and it’s theatre magic. It’s kind of old fashioned that way, that with just a little piece of cardboard you can evoke the heath and the moors and a train and a chase across the heather and a bridge.
RP: It’s that theatrical measure that, as an actor, that’s the pleasure of it. You go to see Miss Saigon and you see that giant helicopter coming in, and it’s our job to create those helicopters and that’s what theatre’s all about. That’s not to say that it isn’t designed beautifully, but it’s designed cleverly so the imagination of the audience is as important as anything else.
AC: And it’s such a blast too to do something that just makes people feel happy. People leave the theatre with a giant smile on their face and I don’t often brag about that kind of thing, but this show, it does it. This is a show I would love to go and see. If you like old English comedy, there’s a bit of a nostalgic feeling to it that can evoke a little sentiment in the viewer, but in these days when the world sucks, basically, and there’s anxiety lurking around every corner waiting to pounce on you, it’s beautiful to do something that is a happy maker, a happy making machine.
RP: It’s fun too, because (as an audience) you’ve got to figure out the rules of the play and then they start to break, so I’m interested to see when the audience starts going, “OK, this is ridiculous.” The secret ingredient is the joy in the room. The joy of performing it, the joy of executing it, and hopefully the joy of the audience.
The 39 Steps runs Nov. 1 -Dec. 16 at Vertigo Theatre. Check out their website, vertigotheatre.com, for tickets and info.
Kari Watson is a writer and former Listings Editor of FFWD Weekly, and has continued to bring event listings to Calgary through theYYSCENE and her event listings page, The Culture Cycle. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.