By Wallace Baine, Sentinel Entertainment Editor, July 6, 2017
Santa Cruz Shakespeare’s ‘39 Steps’ brings madcap comedy to Hitchcock
You wouldn’t think that a Northern California beach town would have any kind of claim on a British cinema icon. But Santa Cruz can – and often does – think of the world-famous film director Alfred Hitchcock as one of its own. That’s because, for years, “Hitch” maintained a summer home in the mountains outside Scotts Valley. (If you’re of a mind to take a journey down a rabbit hole, investigate the possible Santa Cruz connections behind the inspirations for “The Birds” and “Psycho.”)
This summer, Santa Cruz Shakespeare dives headlong into the local Hitchcock connection while at the same time celebrating its unique brand of outdoor theater. The 2017 SCS season kicks off this weekend at the Grove in DeLaveaga Park with a production of Patrick Barlow’s adaptation of Hitchcock’s 1935 film “The 39 Steps.”
But while Hitchcock’s name has come to be a kind of shorthand for elegant, often dark and even violent drama, Barlow’s play is a different animal altogether. It’s an homage and even a bit of a parody of Hitchcock, combining melodrama and, yes, more than a dash of mad comedy.
“(Barlow) was famous for having this two-man theater group where they played all the parts in any given play,” said director Paul Mullins. “So what he set out to do with this play was to do it using only four people.”
One actor (in this production, Brian Smollin) plays the lead role, a fugitive who becomes the target of a huge manhunt after the murder of a woman he had just met who may have been a British spy. Another actor (Grace Rao) plays the three most prominent female parts in the play. And every other role – spies, thugs, police officers, literally dozens of different characters – are played by the remaining two actors, known as “Clown 1” and “Clown 2” (Mike Ryan and Allen Gilmore).
The result is a wild ride of theater that, by the absurd burden it puts on its actors to assume so many different roles, calls attention to its limitations instead of avoiding them.
“And we’ve taken that challenge to the next level,” said Mullins, “in that, we’re doing it outdoors, in nature, often in daylight. This is really about the joy of telling stories.”
Clowns 1 and 2 offer up some of the most challenging acting opportunities in contemporary theater. By some counts, the number of parts that the two actors are called on to inhabit number close to 150. That means, quick costume changes and break-neck speed to change character in a believable way.
“Mike and Allen, they are both just terrific actors, and to watch them differentiate between people on the fly is a wonderful thing,” said Mullins, who is directing his third production at Santa Cruz Shakespeare.
The play is unabashed in its comic approach, and it also rewards Hitchcock fans with several references to his films.
“I want to call it a send-up,” said Mullins, “but that sounds too cheap. Yet calling it a tribute is a little too refined. It’s somewhere in between.”