The Alley Theatre is bringing in Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps, a two-time Tony award-winning show offering a cast of four sharing the duties of more than 150 parts.
Hair Balls had the chance to talk with Director Mark Shanahan about the play and why the actor-director keeps gravitating back to all things Hitchcockian.
Hair Balls: Why did you want to direct "Alfred Hitchcock's the 39 Steps"?
Mark Shanahan: A few years ago, I was lucky enough as an actor to be part of the original Broadway company of the 39 Steps and even got to fill in for the lead role for a nice stretch, so I certainly grew to know the play inside and out. When the opportunity to direct it at the Alley came along, I knew it would be a chance to put my own stamp on it. The play features four actors playing every role from the film, a great 1930's espionage adventure.
However, though the play is based on the film, it is really a great tribute to the theatre, where actors can create any character or any location with a change of a hat or a chair turned on its side. I find the play touching in a way, because it is about actors doing what they love -- making a play out of thin air. More than anything, the play is funny, and I love the idea that we are going to work every day with the goal in mind of making Alley audiences laugh until it hurts.
HB: Is this a play that respects Hitchcock or makes fun of the mannerisms in his films? Or both?
MS: Certainly the script plays fast and furious with Hitchcock's movies in general. But Patrick Barlow, who adapted the script, is a very smart guy. He recognizes that you have to respect the story and not make fun of it even as you're having fun WITH it. The play tips its hat to Hitchcock films from the 1930's through the 1970s and is somewhat of a tour through Hitchcock's career. Sharp audience members will recognize allusions to Vertigo and Rear Window, but you don't have to know the films to get into the spirit of the play.
In a way, it is the perfect play to introduce to someone who isn't steeped in Hitchcock because it has many of the elements of his great films. It's all there -- a man wrongly accused of murder and on the run from the police, a sophisticated villain, a severe mistrust of authority, the fate of the world on the line and of course, a beautiful Hitchcock blonde. Also, we use music solely from his films, ranging from the more famous scores like Bernard Herrmann's work on Psycho, to the less recognizable ones like the score from Young And Innocent.
HB: Is it hard to keep up with four actors playing more than 150 roles and how does everybody keep it straight? Does anyone ever get lost?
MS: Sometimes I think we should sell tickets to what is going on backstage, too, because it is an incredible thing to watch. The quick costume changes and the mad dashes to get to the other side of the wings for an entrance are as rehearsed as anything we put onstage, and man, these actors are incredible. The play is supposed to look effortless in its simplicity, as if four actors are doing everything. But of course we have excellent dressers and stage managers who assist in creating the illusion. As the actors run offstage with eight seconds to get into a new costume, our dressers often have to remind them what scene is coming next as the play moves so quickly!
HB: You played Alex in Hitchcock Blonde. Are you making Hitchcock a regular part of your body of work?
MS: It goes deeper than that for me. I loved performing in the Alley's production of Hitchcock Blonde because I played a film professor who teaches Hitchcock. For the past six years, I have taught a course on Hitchcock at Fordham University, so it was a truly incredible bit of art imitating life! And just four months ago, I performed in a wonderful production of Dial M for Murder at the historic Fulton Opera House in Pennsylvania. I suppose I need to find a production of Rope to either direct or be in, just to round things out.
HB: Did you watch many Hitchcock films growing up and did any of them (The Birds?) scare you a lot?
MS: When I was a kid, my dad used to take me to a revival house in New York called Theatre80 at St. Mark's Place. I was ten years old when he took me to see a double bill of The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes and I distinctly remember the experience. Hitchcock films have always been a bit of an obsession with me, I suppose. They are like great songs you listen to over and over again because you can study them from so many angles and enjoy them endlessly. People often call films "Hitchcockian," but you really have to use the term broadly.
Hitchcock loved certain themes, but his films can be unsettling, as in Shadow Of a Doubt, terrifying, as in Psycho or The Birds, or comedically suspenseful as in North By Northwest. The 39 Steps is really a screwball comedy with suspenseful chase scenes. And it has a great love story!
HB: How about Monty Python, do you know the words to the Lumberjack song? How about the parrot routine?
MS: I would direct you to "The Ministry Of Silly Walks" as one of the funniest things I've ever seen. Python is a good thing to keep in mind when doing The 39 Steps as you do have to be smart while you're being silly, and Monty Python sets the bar pretty high. You've made me want to go re-watch The Lumberjack routine.
HB: What kind of actors do you look for in a comedy takeoff on a serious film? Did you get them at this production?
MS: The Alley Company can do anything. They are so versatile, and they are really getting a chance to shine in this show. I'm particularly thrilled to see Elizabeth Bunch getting so many laughs, the only woman surrounded by three very funny guys. Of course, Alley audiences know she can hold her own! You can't explain to someone how to be funny, so you want your rehearsals to be filled with actors constantly saying , "what if I...?" and run with their ideas. At heart, these actors are always honest in their approach and take the work seriously. In order to do a show like this, an actor has to be incredibly specific in their choices, so every joke, every emotion, every plot point lands perfectly. These performers are really precise and detailed about their work and it is a pleasure to work with them.
HB: Will any of this be scary or will it just be funny? Would it qualify as zany? And why should Alley audiences come see this?
MS: We aim for the play to be funny above all, but I really do think the play is thrilling. Just as the lead character Hannay, has to survive against all odds, so do the actors have to survive. After all, they have to get through this show in front of an audience every night, and it is no small feat. Alley audiences are demanding and I think they will get a kick out of seeing the magic the company of actors is creating for them. Hitchcock said, "drama is life with the dull bits cut out." There is plenty of hysterical, wonderful and suspenseful drama in our play, and never a dull moment!
Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps runs March 10 through March 28 at the Alley Theatre's Hubbard Stage, 615 Texas Avenue. For ticket information go to alleytheatre.org or call 713.220.5700.