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ESPIONAGE RING: Big Dawg takes on Hitchcock’s ‘The 39 Steps’

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Spy thriller bombards the stage at Cape Fear Playhouse.

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Film noir has become a common theme onstage as of late from numerous theatre companies across town. Last weekend Opera House closed “City of Angels,” which follows a writer who’s bringing to life his novel through a movie that riffs on the 1940s detective-age drama of Hollywood. Last year, City Stage Co. produced the Hitchcockian “The 39 Steps,” a Monty Python-like comedy of espionage and murder. Now, Big Dawg Productions will produce the Patrick Barlow play, based on the 1915 novel by John Buchan and on the 1935 Hitchcock film, both of the same name.

bigdogBig Dawg’s artistic director Steve Vernon already curated their season of pairing companion pieces (in the spring they did “The Mousetrap,” followed by “The Real Inspector Hound”) by the time City Stage March hosted the award-winning “The 39 Steps” in March. Vernon wanted Big Dawg’s shows in September and October to pay homage to Alfred Hitchcock. Thus September will welcome “The 39 Steps,” directed by Josh Bailey, before October’s opening of “The Birds Attack,” a parody on Hitchcock’s famed Tippy Hedron drama, “The Birds.”

“We chose not to watch [the City Stage] production because it would have been difficult not to accidently ‘borrow’ from the talents of that cast and crew,” Vernon reveals. “It was a tough decision not to see it, as I have no doubt that they did a great job with the material!”

The plot follows the play’s hero, Richard Hannay, who somehow becomes entangled in an espionage ring while on the run from police who have him pinned for murder. Bailey’s approach to “The 39 Steps” includes casting Tamica Katzmann as Hannay’s assistant, Ms. Pamela Edwards, and Steve Rassin as Hannay. The pacing of the show succeeds from punctuating the timing of its humor.

“Rassin’s playing the ‘straight guy’ in all the antics, and it’s great to see the way he holds the soul of the story—the thriller—together,” Bailey explains. “Tamica as the female lead—who must create three very distinct female characters—and her ability to switch between the femme fatale and the wholesome heroine in the matter of a wig change is so impressive. She brings a realism, depth and emotion to characters who could be seen as two-dimensional.”

Multiple roles are played in the production, though only four people have been cast. They’re rounded out by Randy Davis and Anthony Corvino as the clowns, each of whom comprise multiple other characters.

“This show can easily fall apart if the clowns are not on, and these two are a perfect catch,” Bailey describes. “They’ve managed to create distinct and hilarious characters to fill the world. It really feels like a cast of a dozen instead of four.”

“The script is a marathon to tackle from beginning to end,” Corvino says. “The biggest challenge to playing multiple roles is finding unique ways to distinguish characters through physicality and voice.”

The play traverses Britain with the use of planes, trains and automobiles. The characters are as physically challenged as they are emotionally, in that they climb ladders to mimic a car or train ride. It’s the power of live theatre really showcasing an outstanding script.

“As this was one of Hitchcock’s earlier works, it’s always exciting to see how the really polished elements that would appear in his later work existed in a nascent stage in ‘39 Steps,’” says Bailey, who never has seen the production but was inspired by reading the novel and watching the film in college. “[It explodes] the melodramatic, farcical things which made the films so iconic for comedic purposes. I’m looking at this first as a spy story, but in the veneer of a classic vaudeville play.”

In fact, Jeff Foy’s set has been the most daunting challenge. Over 30 scenes are brought to life, from a London theater to a bridge to small cottages and mansions. It’s recreated like a vaudeville stage, with opera boxes and foot lights helping illuminate the world.

“[Foy and lighting designer Scott Davis] are working to create mobile structures and pieces which can help the actors in their transformation of the space from scene to scene,” Bailey describes. “It’s quite incredible to see these elements come together to allow the frenetic activity of the play and the chase of the thriller to not be lost in quick changes across the English and Scottish countryside.”

“The 39 Steps” opens Thursday night with a “pay what you can” admission price ($5 minimum). The show will run Thursday through Sunday through Oct. 2.

The 39 Steps
Sept. 15-18, 22-25, and 29-Oct. 2,
8 p.m., or Sunday, 3 p.m.
Cape Fear Playhouse
613 Castle Street
Tickets: $15-$20

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Encore Magazine regularly covers topics pertaining to news, arts, entertainment, food, and city life in Wilmington. It also maintains schedules and listings of local events like concerts, festivals, live performance art and think-tank events. Encore Magazine is an entity of H&P Media, which also powers Wilmington’s local ticketing platform, Print and online editions are updated every Wednesday.

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