"The 39 Steps" is a play based on Alfred Hitchcock's film of the same name. Arkansas Repertory Theatre artistic director Bob Hupp, who is directing the Rep's upcoming production of "The 39 Steps," calls the adaptation "a love letter to the theater."
"The premise of the show is that four actors are re-enacting Alfred Hitchcock's film," Hupp said.
The production has many notable aspects, including the return of Avery Clark, the Arkansas native who wowed many with his funny, searing bow as the title character in the Rep's well-received production of "Hamlet."
For "The 39 Steps" Clark is playing Richard Hannay, the ordinary man caught in the middle of extraordinary circumstances. Anybody halfway familiar with Hitchcock understands this is a recurring type in the director's work. Clark is the only actor in "The 39 Steps" with a single role. Nikki Coble, who was Ophelia to Clark's Hamlet at the Rep, plays three different women while Jason Guy and Jason Collins, billed as Clown No. 1 and Clown No. 2 respectively, take on more than 100 different roles between them.
"The play functions on so many levels," Hupp said. "It is a spy story. It is a spoof. That spoof sits on the backs of these four actors. They don't get any help. It's a tour de force for the actors."
The play adaptation doesn't avoid what would only seem possible on film — including a scene inside and on top of a speeding train — and that is part of its appeal. The actors create these high-wire events — including a car chase and a sprint across an elevated bridge — with a minimal number of props.
"There is lots of slapstick comedy," said Hupp. "There's lots of physical humor, but the special effects, if you will, are created through the invention of the actors and those few things they can lay their hands on. The thing that we come away with is, 'Wow, I can't believe they just did that.' "
Hupp said that while the paces the actors are put through are rigorous and the costume changes will require Herculean efforts, his aim is for "The 39 Steps," to add up to more than just "precision drills."
"There is a madcap, zany quality to the show, but if we can't capture that emotional connection then we don't care about the characters and it just becomes an appreciation of their physical skills but that's not the whole play."
As for Clark, he doesn't feel like he can make a comparison between Shakespeare's prince of Denmark and Hitchcock's ordinary man caught in a spy ring.
"They are completely and totally different beasts," Clark said. "Both of the characters carry the weight of the storyline. Where in Hamlet I got more of the payoff at the end, in this show it's the clowns, these guys who get the payoff. In this show I am more of the straight man."
Guy, one of those clowns who will be making lightning fast costume changes and dizzying character shifts, agreed.
"We are the underdogs, I think. You have to root for us to pull it off for the show to work."